10,000 Year Clock Is Symbol of Building to Scale and for Long Term

10944v1 max 450x450 10,000 Year Clock Is Symbol of Building to Scale and for Long Term

Jeff Bezos

When I was at INSEAD for my MBA, I noticed it was fashionable for young men on the move in their careers to wear genuinely expensive watches. We’re talking $5,000 a pop and more (and no doubt they would upgrade in time.)

Me, I’d rather invest in my wine cellar: each to his own. The point is, it’s nothing new for rich men to spend handsomely on their timepiece. And nothing new for even richer men to lavish a fortune on signature and-or vanity projects.

So it’s all to type that Amazon founder and CEO billionare,Jeff Bezos, is spending $42m on his timepiece. The clock the size of a building, which will still take a number of years to complete, is being constructed deep in the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range, Texas. It is designed to run for 10,000 years.

On the clock’s web site Bezos says: “It’s a special clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking… As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems. We’re likely to need more long-term thinking.”

This is partly the standard, “world-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart unless we wake up and change our lifestyle” plea for a long-term, sustainable, perspective.

But, in fact, the general thrust of communications around the 10K Clock is refreshingly low on planetary doom. Long Now Foundation founder member Steward Brand says of the clock: “Ideally it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment.”

Picture 3 10,000 Year Clock Is Symbol of Building to Scale and for Long Term

Builders in clock tunnel. Image: http://www.10000yearclock.net/

So the clock is in fact about exactly what it says on the tin: just a symbol of long-term thinking, a monument to the value of a long-term perspective.

And while 10,000 years is no business horizon, it’s possible to interpret the clock as symbol not just socially, but also in terms of dollars and cents. In a short-term world, where most businesses are rated by the quarterly numbers, it is a living monument to making scaled-up and lasting investments, and not pulling the plug too soon.

Who better than Bezos to put up this monument? In his first report to Amazon.com shareholders in 1997 he said: “because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”

The company was founded in 1994, listed in 1997, and but didn’t post profit until 2001. But by the time it did, it was far bigger and more influential than imagined. It was on the road to becoming what it is today: the world’s biggest online retailer, period. Reflecting a final coming of age after 15 years, the share price (AMZN) has doubled and doubled again in the last two years.

Arguably Bezos’ true leadership genius at Amazon in the early days was not just seeing the long-term and scalable possibility (beyond book retailing) but also being able tactically to hold the short-termers at bay for long enough to do the building required.

As a business culture, we’re locked into annual reports and rapid product life cycles. We’re quick to say “fail-fast” and pull the plug on a fledgling project that’s in the red. Or we make a return, so good, let’s cash it in and do something else.

But Bezos was able to see and to say that a critical component of business leadership success is looking beyond your own or your competitors’ time horizons and scale horizons.

The leadership message in the clock is “Don’t think small. Forget short-term wins. Look beyond your time horizon. Give weight to the long-term possibilities. Build for tomorrow and allow the full potential of a project to evolve.”

 

read more

Leading the Future, Then and Now

I was in Edinburgh recently to deliver a 2-day “Leading the Future” workshop as part of a leadership development program at The Edinburgh Institute of Leadership & Management Practice.

Leadership is most commonly associated with motivating staff and streamlining organizational effectiveness. While this is core, leadership implies far more. It implies foresight and vision. Leaders are not just those who are responsible for an organization’s “best manifestation today.” Whether they like it or not, they also carry the burden of responsibility for their organization’s best manifestation tomorrow.

And tomorrow, as we know, will be different in important and sometimes surprising ways.

So any leader of note is soon asked to go beyond “effective managing,” to look out at the uncertain road ahead and steer to the desired destination on behalf of followers and stakeholders. Leaders take their institutions to the future.

Therefore, as enterprises are forced to transform in response to rapid social, technological and market change, so anticipating and competitively interpreting new opportunities and setting appropriate direction under conditions of complexity and uncertainty has become a key competitive skill — perhaps the key skill — leaders bring to their position.

There are, these days, more high-quality non-predictive approaches to strategic foresight and future-management than most managers are aware of. So this is what I get to go over with an impressive array of real-world Scottish managers in workshop mode in Edinburgh over the weekend.

But will leadership itself change?

In leading the future, there is also a meta-question: will leadership itself change? Does this skill have “a future?” Will leading mean the same thing in the next generation as it has meant in the past? Or are there new skills leaders will need to acquire for the new era of business and society?

In a recent Forrester hub blog piece “Thoughts on Leadership in the Social Era,” authors Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler bring insight from their book Empowered, and Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership in asserting what it means to lead “in a social world.” They offer this 5-point checklist:

1. Share strategy continuously, especially changes in strategy
2. Embrace half-baked ideas
3. Use councils to coordinate
4. Celebrate failure
5. Celebrate success (Full text here.)

300px Abraham Lincoln head on shoulders photo portrait Leading the Future, Then and Now

Would he require a skills upgrade? Image via Wikipedia

To be honest, this looks a lot like the flattening and opening-up “leadership revolution” of the dot-com boom and the post-recession 90s, which leads me to think, is leadership (including the foresight injunction) perhaps a constant rather than a changing skillset? Would any leader in history, from Jefferson to Jesus, not be able to lead in today’s environment? Would George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Sir Earnest Shackleton, Mahatma Ghandi, Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela, et al would be able to lead in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century, or would they they require some kind of “skills upgrade” to be fit for the world of social media, empowered consumers, and so on?

I’m very tempted to say they would do fine. Hyper-information and social networking is just another set of challenges drawing on an age-hold leadership skill set, which includes knowing how to effectively communicate and persuade and inspire, no matter what the media conditions.

But I’m indebted to my friend and foresight-sounding-board-extraordinaire, Andrew Curry, for offering this perspective:

“I think there must be *some* changes in the demands on leadership as a result of:

- rapid feminization of the workforce
- secular shift in attitudes to authority/ trust
- emergence of ideas about complexity.”

 Leading the Future, Then and Now
read more

The FIFA world cup meets the business model canvas

I’ve been meaning to write about the business model canvas and how it fabulously advances industry foresight (principally by providing a way to take foresight ideas forward into actions, to-do’s, and next steps.) It is truly breakthrough stuff. See The Business Model Innovation Hub and the book Business Model Generation, by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.

But, it is the eve of the soccer World Cup so in the interest of providing more couch potato time for myself, I table the longer discussion in favor of this taster, which shows the FIFA business model canvas. The point of the canvas is it provides a “sandbox” for thinking how elements could be rearranged, taken away, or new ones added, to renew the business model for the future.

FIFA World Cup 2010 The FIFA world cup meets the business model canvas

Of course, renewing a business model begs the question does it need renewing? Which is the question that bedevils all scenario and futures thinking. For some the status quo works perfectly! Did you know that FIFA demands that Sepp Blatter is hosted by South Africa at the protocol status of a visiting Head of State? Hmmm.

read more

South Africa 2030, yes there will be life after the Fifa World Cup

The short-term future in South Africa is the Fifa Soccer World Cup, and at the moment it is really hard to get anyone to see or think beyond it. Football is life. Nevertheless a few hundred intrepid thinkers gathered in Cape Town earlier this month to consider South Africa in 2030, under the auspices of the World Future Society, South Africa Chapter, and its very capable leader Mike Lee.

I was lucky enough to be asked to do the opening address at the conference, and even luckier in that this Web site: South Africa – The Good News summarized some of what I and others said:

“Adam Gordon, Foresight Project Director and author of “Future Savvy” gave us some pointers:

  1. Beware of sector experts, they are deeply entrenched in the present.
  2. The consumer and choice is the determinant, not technology.
  3. Change is about overestimating followed by underestimating.
  4. Trends are patterns in the data, behind the trend are enablers and drivers, but frictional forces exist and in front of the trend are turners and blockers.
  5. Trend extrapolation is limited, don’t fall foul of the turkey syndrome.
  6. There is well behaved and badly behaved change. Both can be predictable and unpredictable. The potential of sudden shifts always lurks.
  7. Scenario planning wraps up the key uncertainties over which we have no control.

.
“The ‘BIG’ question he asks is ‘when do we influence the future and when do we adapt?’ There are big predictable forces out there (like population growth / the diminishing availability of oil etc), and there are big unpredictable forces out there (ja, well no fine!). Importantly, we can design our ability to influence and we can design the way we adapt. It is critical that we are able to do both.

“But managing the future is more than just about scenario planning, it is also about the implementation of the plan. It is about developing a methodology that prioritises, engages with stakeholders, and enables proactive actions on the ground.

So how?

Some important considerations (from various speakers):

  1. Often we know what causes the problem (poverty, crime, HIV) but we don’t know what to do about it.
  2. Often the logic that gives rise to the problem is not the logic that will solve the problem.
  3. Mostly the problem does not contain the makings of the solution.
  4. Solutions in one area can exacerbate problems in another.
  5. The current situation has momentum, change to the system should happen concurrently not suddenly.

.
“What is critical is the foresight process, it must be well-informed so that the implementation strategies that follow have buy-in, are doable, are relevant and far-reaching. There is a very real danger of visions being disconnected, unachievable and, at the end of the day, a pipe-dream.”

Dr Elizabeth Dostal talked of a stakeholder democracy in which she promoted the design of a matrix that recognised different stakeholder levels on the vertical axis and different environmental dimensions on the horizontal axis. A multi-level, multi-dimensional model.

“Imagine” she said, “putting four Nobel Peace laureates together and asking them what the causes of global conflict are. One may argue poverty, another ideology, another resources, and another greed. In no time, they would all be in different silo’s defending their view, in one sense they are all right, but in another sense they have not looked at the whole picture. A multi-level, multi-dimensional model would reveal this, the gaps in their logic, and the opportunities for agreement.”

read more

C.K. Prahalad’s testimony to the need for foresight in management

The strategy world has mourned the sudden passing of C.K. Prahalad, Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School, University of Michigan, this week.

competing for the future 800x650 C.K. Prahalads testimony to the need for foresight in management

Front page 'Competing for the Future' Hamel & Prahalad, HBR 1994

.
As many have commented, Prahalad made great strides in getting business to see the potential in emerging markets and ‘poor’ consumers, in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and allied work.

In our rush for the new and latest, early work often gets buried. So I would like, as my take on the passing of Prahalad, to go back to his fundamental testimony to the role of and need for foresight in management, which is to be found in his co-authored piece (with Gary Hamel) ‘Competing for the Future,’ Harvard Business Review, 1994, which became a very famous book of the same name. Sixteen years on and now in the wake of the credit crunch, this piece remains as relevant as it ever was:

Ask yourself: Do senior managers in my company have a clear and shared understanding of how the industry may be different ten years from now? Is my company’ point of view about the future unique among competitors?

“On average managers devote less than 3% of their time building a corporate perspective on the future.

“The painful upheavals in so many companies in recent years reflect the failure of one-time industry leaders to keep up with the accelerating pace of industry change… Those companies were run by managers, not leaders, by maintenance engineers, not architects.

“If the future is not occupying senior managers, what is? Restructuring and reegineering. While both are legitimate and important tasks, they have more to do with shoring up today’s business than with building tomorrow’s industries. Any company that is a bystander on the road to the future will watch its structure, values, and skills become progressively less attuned to industry realities.

(therefore) “Most layoffs at large US companies have been the fault of managers who fell asleep at the wheel and missed the turnoff for the future.

“If senior executives don’t have reasonably detailed answers to the ‘future’ questions, and if the answers they have are not significantly different of the ‘today’ answers, there is little chance that their companies will remain market leaders.

“The Quest for Foresight: Why do we talk of foresight rather than vision? Vision connotes a dream or an apparition, and there is more to industry foresight than a blinding flash of insight. Industry foresight is based on deep insights into trends in technology, demographics, regulations, and lifestyles, which can be harnessed to rewrite industry rules and create new competitive space.”

Footnote: this from the FT: The last time CK spoke to the FT he was buzzing with intellectual energy. “Really, in all my career I have been interested in ‘next practices’, and not merely ‘best practices’,” he said.

read more

Unexpected prediction modesty highlights problems of timing and impact

Continuing the theme of financial types talking to each other about predictions and predictability, this ‘Tea with the Economist’ interview of Stephen Roach, Chairman, Morgan Stanley Asia by Economist New York Bureau Chief Mathew Birk, carries interesting lessons about the limits of prediction.


Birk commends Roach for being one of the few to have predicted the Credit Crunch problems, to which Roach demurs in saying he was “too early”. He then furthers his modesty in saying that the “breakage” in the financial system was “in excess of anything I envisioned.”

Self-deprecation in assessing one’s predictive abilities will endear anyone to me. Even Roach, who later in the interview burns this hard-won credibility by laying the blame for the credit crunch at the door of regulators, forgetting how hard financial institutions lobbied regulators for greater freedoms in the 1990s.

But I digress. The predictive issues the interview raises are as follows. Issue one: it’s not enough (as any stock short-seller will confirm) to get the direction of a future change right. One must get the timing right too. Issue two: it’s not enough to anticipate a change. One must be able to judge it’s impact. Getting either timing or impact wrong is effectively to have missed the future.

.

Probability

On the latter topic — the problem of impact — Nassim Taleb is unrelenting, and he is right. Analysts routinely mix up probability and impact. They think that because an event has a low probability (‘it would be a 10-sigma event!’) it can be marginalized in the predictive number crunching. Of course, it can’t. The low-probability of a wildcard or black swan event is irrelevant because when it happens it will change the game, and that’s why, in every predictive situation of reasonable complexity and uncertainty, using statistical extrapolations (regressions and so on) to predict, is to dangerously paper over the cracks. It is precisely the cracks that businesses and policy makers need to worry about.

Determining the direction of change is hard enough. Assessing timing or extent of impact — a ‘total future impact index’ — is wickedly difficult. It’s a task not to be underestimated, and to simply extrapolate current trends (= assuming the trend’s timeline and impact stay the same as in the past) is the royal road to underestimating it.

This is the reason foresight for complex, uncertain, changing situations can only be grasped by NOT predicting (quantitatively or otherwise) but by exploring the limit-conditions of the plausible (What would happen if the timing of the change accelerated, or was significantly delayed? What if  the impact was 10x or one tenth of what we expect? And so on.)

.

read more

Perhaps some lessons in prediction learned as US dollar-demise scenario emerges

One of the benefits of scenario-based future thinking is the ‘permission’ to think through alternative future outcomes without necessarily predicting them. ‘Predictors’ focus, by contrast, on isolating the highest probability future in order not to have to think through or plan for less likely outcomes.


Predictions of the dollar’s demise are as old as the greenback itself of course, but over recent weeks the specter of the dollar heading way way below its trading range — a dollar crunch — has entered the zone of the credible, or, in scenario terms, the ‘cone of plausible uncertainty.’ That means decision-makers with lots at stake are taking it seriously.

Like the British pound, the dollar has been under a cloud due to perceptions of economic fallout from the credit crunch and global recession, but particular questions about the US currency have recently surfaced, driven by reports [Robert Fisk's 'The Demise of the Dollar' story in The Independent (Oct 6)]  that “Gulf Arabs are planning – along with China, Russia, Japan and France – to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council” (Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar).

The subtext is far from merely financial. Practically, it would mean that on any day, the real cost of oil to US consumers and businesses would go up or down depending on the strength of the currency. This is something America is not used to. But, more deeeply, dropping dollar-denomination of oil is a direct shot across the bows of Washington’s say over oil affairs, and the hegemony of the dollar as the dominant global reserve currency.

De-dollarizing oil would not in itself push the US currency below its 25-year range. But it is portentous of the clear trend to a genuinely multi-power world, for better or worse, in which the dollar will get no favors. That will push the dollar down, at least while the news and fallout make their way through the financial and real economic systems.

Rumors of de-dollarization have been hotly denied, as further reported here, but as the Independent points out, denials are to be expected, and are always issued in these situations. They mean nothing. Even cub reporters know that.

.
Scenario thinking

What’s particularly interesting to me is that a ‘scenario’ of dollar demise has become not only plausible in the mainstream view of the future, but scenario thinking is being used as a way to consider the nature of this outcome, and how best to respond without predicting the outcome either way. As recently as directly pre-credit crunch, the media question would have been: ‘what is the best prediction for the dollar (or the housing market, or credit default swaps?) and that, rather then scoping out the implications of the lesser-likelihood, would have dominated the discussion.

So, what struck me forcefully in the Business Week video interview above, where BW Chief Economist Mike Mandel interviews the news magazine’s Economics Editor Peter Coy (see Coy’s underlying story here), is how the less-likely, non-predicted, but very significant outcome is actively addressed:

Says Coy: “It’s so hard to know what the dollar is going to do. We don’t argue that we know… what we do is we say, ‘it could happen’ and let’s take that possibility seriously, in the same way we should have taken the possibility of falling housing prices seriously…”

This is not formal scenario-building of course. But it is, fundamentally an adoption of the framework, saying in the classic ‘scenarios’ way: “we can’t predict if it will happen or it won’t, but if it does it will have significant impact. So let’s just ask: ‘what if ‘ it does and explore the outcomes and our responses. What will the word look like? What would be the implications, the knock-ons and spinoffs? If it comes to pass, what would be wish we had done today?”

Perhaps failing to predict the credit crunch has dented predictors’ halos enough to cause a mini-zeitgeist-shift towards the only real way to cope with important uncertainty: exploring all outcomes that pass the plausibility and significance test, whether or not we actually believe they will happen.

read more

A look back on how people look forward, and the need for ‘futuriography’

Future A look back on how people look forward, and the need for futuriography

Samuel, L., Future: A Recent History, University of Texas Press, 2009

I recently received a copy of Future: A Recent History to review. True confession: what hit me first on picking up the book was (a) “wow, the title Future is not already taken!? And (b) what a fabulous job the University of Texas Press has done producing this book. It is beautifully designed, with an understated Art Deco motif, and carefully laid out with enough text on the page, on delightfully solid paper stock.
It may seem odd to go on about text on the page, but it’s much easier to read like an adult, in paragraphs. So many books, particularly business books, these days appear produced at 14-point, double spacing, like pre-school readers. Makes you wonder…

Anyway, author Larry Samuel’s project is to investigate the history of views of the future from 1920 to the present. (The book has an acknowledged US-centric focus, partially defended by the notion that future-mindedness is “a principle strand in America’s DNA.”) He organizes the book chronologically into six periods between then and now, and shows, with interesting examples, how each period had its own views of the future, and how the views shifted from period to period.

In tracing the history of “tommorowism,” in this way, Future is on a similar track to the classic book in this field: I.F. Clarke’s The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 (Jonathan Cape, 1979). It ultimately makes similar points, although Samuel’s argument is obviously drawn from more recent examples. As Samuel puts it: “A look back on how people looked forward reveals that while it possesses certain common themes … the future is not a fixed idea but a highly variable on that reflects the values of those who are imagining it.”

Happily I can say this chimes exactly with the argument of Future Savvy, particularly Chapter 4 “Zeitgeist & Perception,” where I argued how heavily the nature of the present and its topical issues frames how the future is seen (what is forecast, what is aspired to or feared, what counts as a valid method for thinking ahead, and so on). Which means the framing conditions of the present  should be carefully analyzed in assessing the validity of any future view.

Historiography

Historiography – investigating the meta-conditions surrounding what is recorded and how it is interpreted by historians – what counts as “history” and for whom –  is a well-understood part of doing good history. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent standard “futuriography” in the foresight field, despite it being absolutely fundamental to understanding the value of our own predictions as, similarly, highly determined by the epistemic configurations of their production. It is here that Samuel very competently fills a much needed gap.

The practical implication of this, which Future does not get into – it’s not that kind of book – is that to make better predictions (or make valid assessments of others’ predictions) we need to ask stiff questions as to how much of what we foresee is determined by the perspectives of today, and expect the answer to be “very much.” Understanding the limitations and biases of our own perspective is the sine-qua-non of a robust view of what tomorrow will actually bring.

read more

Peter L. Bernstein on risk; and how risk management fits into foresight as a whole

Peter Bernstein, the author of “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk,” died recently at the age of 90. In memoriam McKinsey Quarterly reposted this recent Bernstein interview. I put it up here because it’s a timely and timeless lesson in thinking about uncertainty and threats, and avoiding simplistic (quantitative) approaches to managing them – one of core themes of “Future Savvy.” Bernstein offers and endorsement of real options and explains why sophisticated Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) mathematical models to control risk created “a math dependency” that was blind to, among other things, unexpected systemic feedback to its own emergence:


One of the first things Bernstein says is that risk implies that we don’t know what will happen, which could be good things happening too. Risk management, as it is currently understood, gets executives to look at what could go wrong in the uncertain future of the enterprise. (Somehow threats are easier than opportunties to get departmental budget for.) The standard approach is to break risks down into commonly understood threat categories: a typical analysis would illuminated risks posed by technology failure, communications failure, security failure, natural disasters, accidents, or market/reputation risk, liability risk, financial/credit risk, and so on. This negative-outcome identification is typically followed by strategies to monitor, minimize, or control the risk event or its impact.

Doing all this is great, BUT it is just a narrow part of enterprise and industry foresight. Why? First, industry foresight or futures studies for business is focused as much on the opportunities change offers as on threats. Second, foresight tools (when correctly applied) set themselves the task of enlarging perspectives or mental maps so that we can see more things, or more possibilities than the generally expected set (whether good or bad). Set against this, risk management is little more than the catalog of known threats. The unknown or poorly understood threat, or unseen opportunity missed (and grabbed by others) is likely to be more damaging to the enterprise.

read more

Facebook & the Fortune 500: why is the future of management always in the future?

Strategy and Management guru Gary Hamel recently had things to say on the WSJ blog about how management needs to evolve, as follows:

Says Hamel, “The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy.

“If your company hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to understand these Internet-derived expectations, and then reinvent its management practices accordingly.”

He cites 12 work-relevant “the post-bureaucratic realities” that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is “with it” or “past it.” These are:

1. All ideas compete on an equal footing.
2. Contribution counts for more than credentials.
3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.
4. Leaders serve rather than preside.
5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned.
6. Groups are self-defining and -organizing.
7. Resources get attracted, not allocated.
8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.
10. Users can veto most policy decisions.
11. Intrinsic rewards matter most.
12. Hackers are heroes.

One hesitates to question Hamel, whose edifice of work, bookended by Competing for the Future (1994) and The Future of Management (2007) is as eloquent and substantiated a guide for innovation and future-thinking in management as you will find.

But, what is startling, for those of us around long enough to remember the Web-excited 1990s, which includes Hamel of course, is that these 12 principles are really old stuff, the mantras of the Internet 1.0 … the needs of Gen F are apparently not different to the needs of Gen Y.

But, now it’s a dozen years later, and this future is still the future. Hmm.

New management, but not in old bottles

Actually, surely Hamel’s beef is with the Fortune 500 set particularly, because what has happened is that most small and niche companies have already embraced a big chunk of these new-management attributes. It’s specifically the Fortune 500 that lags: but then, running organizations with stakeholders and budgets resembling mid-sized countries seems to fly in the face of Gen F value set.

Looking abroad, it appears that a Chinese factory or an Indian call center are not about to convert to Gen-F values either. Command and control, and uncreative hyper-attention attention to margins — effected by the Weberian bureaucracy — is the route to profit for them. The old paradigm will rule, and rule well.

From the Future Savvy vantage point, the real future will have, broadly speaking, two types of firm, the Weberian and the Gen-F. Firms running 19th century-type businesses will run them in 19C ways. Funky firms exploiting new ideas have already changed management style significantly and will continue to do so.

read more

Foresight and Foucault in “The Age of Heretics”

Review: The Age of Heretics, (2nd Edition), Art Kleiner, Jossey-Bass, 2008

futurist heretics Foresight and Foucault in The Age of HereticsOne of the conundrums of foresight work is that it demands a macro-perspective, but real change requires focus. In order to get the breadth of view across society and technology to think adequately about the future, the futures analyst is forced to forgo much of the detail, while implementers are thinking: “this 40,000 ft view is very illuminating, but how do I land the plane?” What changes do I make, in my organization, in my industry, on Monday morning, and how do I not get fired for making them?

Kleiner’s updated The Age of Heretics, (2nd edition, Jossey-Bass, 2008) is the modern history of people who find themselves – or put themselves – on the focus side of foresight: who work practically on the ground inside corporate institutions to achieve change, which means by definition challenging the methods and perspectives of their institution. It is not the story of foresight at the lofty level of ideas, but the altogether grittier and more interesting story of how macro-change consciousness meets real institutions, real organizational dynamics, real industry pressures, and real career considerations, in the history of US corporations since 1945.

Kleiner, the editor-in-chief of Booz Allen’s Strategy+Business, is no stranger to the foresight field. He is the ghost-writer behind an eye-popping portion of the futures canon, including The Art of the Long View; The Fifth Discipline, and its Fieldbook; and The Living Company, and so on, (source: http://www.well.com/~art/) so it’s no surprise that the fabric of his text is lush in its familiarity with the players and ideas in the field.

The common thread he follows – through figures like Herman Kahn, Willis Harman, Amory Lovins, Oliver Markley, and so on, is that of the heretic, the maverick against the machine. Intriguingly, along the way, Kleiner gives us a worm’s-eye view of the genesis of many new management ideas, from “lean production” to the “balanced scorecard” to “scenario planning’ – showing how they emerge from and have been engendered by the forces of institutions in productive conflict with their heretics.


The political history of truth, and its future

Philosopher Michel Foucault catapulted our understanding of institutions as a political field, using insights from the history of prisons, hospitals, and asylums to show the relationship between power and knowledge in the evolution of institutional forms. But he never dealt with the modern business corporation. It may be overstating it, but not by much, to say that Kleiner updates Foucault for corporate America. The themes he carries: the role of the deviant, transgression, the evolution of truth, and discursive struggles between insiders and outsiders, are highly resonant. In his previous book, Who Really Matters (Doubleday, 2003) Kleiner developed other parts of this same perspective: showing how every organization’s identity and choices can be understood as driven by the interests of its core group – its powerful insiders.

The Age of Heretics is an engrossing history of change-agents in companies in strategic and organizational transformation. But it’s not just a history. In the future – while the names of the players, and their issues, and the institutions themselves will change, the productive articulation between the heretic and the institution will remain the format of change in big groups. So the lessons of the book are well taken and very highly recommended.

[This review, authored by Adam Gordon, first appeared in The Association of Professional Futurist's Compass Magazine]

read more

Credit crunch: the foresight was there, the problem was elsewhere

One of the questions I’m asked a lot is whether Future Savvy would have helped to predict the credit crunch. My response, as in this INSEAD interview, has been that the book gives readers the tools to judge the merits of predictions, so wouldn’t have directly helped predict the financial crisis, but it would have been a key resource in drawing attention to the poor view of the future that bankers and regulators were acting on.

In many ways, focusing on whether “this” or “that” is predicted, or not predicted, is to put the cart before the horse. The horse is the adequacy of our approach to anticipating outcomes and the quality of our foresight as a whole. When this is good, the cart – not missing important changes – will follow.

credit crunch 253x300 Credit crunch: the foresight was there, the problem was elsewhere
Credit: http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog

In this, it’s important to realize that many did predict the financial crisis (as many predicted 9/11 in various ways). Sticking with the financial crunch for now: it has generally been portrayed it as a “why-didn’t-anyone-see-it-coming” event. It wasn’t. Hats off to The Times for their October 12 piece: “10 People Who Predicted the Financial Meltdown.”(Summary here). Allowing for a fairly loose definition of “predicted,” the article shows that among those who foresaw the crunch were: Vince Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats (2003); US congressman Ron Paul (2003); Stephen Roach, senior executive at Morgan Stanley (2004); Christopher Wood – chief strategist of a broking firm in the Asia-Pacific Market (2005); and Nouriel Roubini, economics professor at NYU (2006)… and there were many others.

A different problem

So this reframes the problem entirely. It’s not that the predictions were not there. It was that not enough people believed them and, particularly, important decision-makers didn’t believe them or didn’t have the institutional capacity to respond. So there are two halves to the problem: the ability to see the full spectrum of what may happen, including unexpected outcomes; and the ability to act on what we see. Quality in foresight work – the raison d’etre of Future Savvy – makes it possible to see more outcomes more clearly, and to act with more confidence in choosing what to prepare for. (In the real world we can’t prepare for every outcome.)

There was a good letter published in the FT from eminent futurist Peter Schwartz on December 2, which describes this very well. It shows predictions for what they are (one-horse scenarios), and how decision-makers are typically bound into inaction or wrong action not only by working on the basis of a wrong prediction, but by the predictive mindset itself. This mindset – the habit or culture of picking “one right answer” in the face of a complex situation with many competing outcomes, prematurely closes alternatives and leaves us open to surprise. As Schwartz says, as scenario planners have always said (and he was one of the people who defined the field in the first place), a compelling set of alternative future scenarios encourages decision-makers to recognize unlikely and unpopular outcomes, along with expected outcomes, and therefore to be able to respond earlier and more effectively whatever happens.

Scenarios also contribute to the “act” side of the problem. In a well-done set for the banking industry, a financial-meltdown scenario would at least have been in play, institutionalizing the consideration of less unlikely, less popular outcomes in company and government forums, forcing serious consideration of necessary strategies and contingencies, and therein creating the ability to act early and effectively without having predicted the crisis.

The letter is well worth quoting in full:

Sir, The real question regarding the financial crisis is not, as the Queen asked: “Why did nobody see this coming?” In fact, any number of thoughtful people in academia, politics and business had been compiling the data and sounding warnings for several years.
The question we should be asking is: “Why didn’t decision-makers believe that a global financial meltdown was increasingly likely and then act on that belief?” Or, to put it another way: “What would it take to make decision-makers both believe and act?”

The problem is that decision-makers believe that they are forced to pick one right answer: the most likely scenario. Their approach to decision-making does not afford them the opportunity to consider apparently low probability but highly consequential scenarios. The answer, therefore, to the “believe” half of the question is a decision-making process that considers several scenarios: compelling stories about alternative futures that incorporate the analysis of “outliers” and describe three or four plausible paths forward.
Good scenarios force decision-makers to challenge their own assumptions and reconsider what is possible. As a result, they can take seriously those scenarios that seemed less likely at first, but whose plausibility increases over time.

The second part of the question – “What would it take to act?” – is much harder to address. Suppose that Ben Bernanke or Hank Paulson had come to believe a year or two ago that the house of cards was about to collapse and trigger cascading, global failures. What would they have done, given the realities of the complex interconnected systems at the heart of the problem? Perhaps if they had good scenarios with appropriate indicators to start with, they could have rehearsed different strategies and contingencies. Importantly, these decision-makers could have used these scenarios to persuade others on all sides of the issue also to recognise the complexity of the impending crisis in a more timely way. It’s never easy to convince everyone around you that the game they have been playing to their great benefit is about to change. But with a shared recognition of the magnitude of the risks and the ways they might unfold, they could have acted far earlier to prevent some of the dire consequences that have occurred, let alone what is to come.

read more

Debates in forecasting Euro’s status vs. Dollar, 2025

A recent forecast-and-critique exchange between economists is worthy of attention from a forecast assessment and evaluation point of view.

The forecast is the recently published academic research paper: Chinn & Frankel (2008), “The Euro May Over the Next 15 Years Surpass the Dollar as Leading International Currency,” Faculty Research Working Paper RWP08-016 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government) available here. Frankel is a Professor of Economics at the Kennedy School.

The critique, “Forecasting the Euro’s Future,” by Benjamin Cohen, is here

The argument of the Chinn & Frankel paper, which is also summarized here is that the euro may surpass the dollar as the leading international reserve currency as early as 2025. The authors use econometrically-estimated determinants of the shares of major currencies in the reserve holdings of the world’s central banks. Significant factors include: size of the home country, rate of return, and liquidity in the relevant home financial center (as measured by the turnover in its foreign exchange market). The analysis predicts a narrowing in the gap between the dollar and euro over the period 1999-2007, and forecasts this trend to continue.

picture 11 Debates in forecasting Euros status vs. Dollar, 2025

Cohen has technical issues with the forecasts, saying, “the analysis addresses just one specific function of the two rival monies – their use in central bank reserves – ignoring all the many other roles that international currencies play. But the essence of his critique is deeper. He says, “By concentrating purely on economic factors, (the forecast) ignores the politics involved, which in practice could prove to be far more decisive… key considerations include both the quality of governance in a currency’s home economy and the nature of relationships between countries. Is the issuer of a currency capable of assuring effective political stability at home? Can it project power abroad? Does it enjoy strong inter-governmental ties – perhaps a traditional patron-client linkage or a formal military alliance? Though it is by no means easy to operationalise many of these factors for purposes of empirical analysis, it is hard to deny their importance (for an accurate forecast.)”

Cohen’s agenda is not merely to tackle possible shortcomings of Chinn & Frankel’s study, but to critique economic forecasters far-and-wide that analyze the technical data, while ignoring political (or social) factors that are hugely influential on outcomes, yet harder or impossible to quantify, and which are therefore conveniently ignored.

Coming to grips with politics
Says Cohen: “Chinn and Frankel are not alone in this shortcoming, of course. Many economists, perhaps even most, have a hard time coming to grips with the intricacies of politics, which can seem so messy and indeterminate when compared with the pristine parsimony of formal economics. When it comes to the analysis of public policy, few even bother to try to address political factors systematically.

“The result, though, is sadly predictable. By ignoring the role of politics, economists often get it wrong. How many trade specialists were prepared for the recent breakdown of the Doha trade talks, despite the obvious gains to be had on all sides from a new round of liberalisation? How many can explain the unprecedented accumulation of reserves in China or other East Asian countries, the widespread distrust of multinational corporations or the failure of the international community to do a better job at combating global warming? Politics is clearly critical to all these questions, and more… (Yet) conveniently, Chinn and Frankel set all these considerations aside in order to build a parsimonious model that they can use for forecasting purposes. Only three independent variables are highlighted in their regressions: country size (relative income), foreign-exchange turnover (representing the depth of competing financial markets), and trend exchange-rate changes (representing the rate of return on currency balances).”

Cohen offers potential political and ideological blockers to the particular forecast: “Japan, for instance, has long relied on a formal security umbrella provided by the United States to protect it against external threats; and the same, less formally, is true for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as well. Can we really imagine any of these nations, all very large dollar holders, casually jeopardising their ties to Washington for the sake of a few basis points of return on their reserves?”

To be fair to Frankel, the nature of his analysis is consistently political – see his blog at http://content.ksg.harvard.edu/blog/jeff_frankels_weblog/
One can’t imagine that Frankel or Chinn would dispute that politics will strongly influence the accuracy of their forecast. (What they clearly imply in their data-centered model is that the economic data is backed up by political shifts towards Europe, or at least there is nothing in the political realm that would counter their technical analysis.)

Yet the problem remains that these contextual factors are not built into the model. The technical stuff is quantifiable and gets forecasted quantitatively. The rest is a kind of political/social/ideology soup that we flounder in, and the best we can apparently say is “it’s going in the same direction” or “ceteris paribus”.

International Political Economy
Going with Cohen, one may well ask: what is the value of the forecast that ignores the context, or separates it in this way? Surely very little. As impressive as the economics or the modeling is, the results are are circumscribed by the larger questions that are not in the model, and that affect everything.

As an alternative, Cohen offers International Political Economy (IPE), which explicitly combines political analysis with economic theory, saying, “part of what IPE offers is a critique policy choices as ‘rational calculus by unitary actors responding to well-defined structural constraints and incentives – in effect, an approach akin to the analysis of atomistic firms in a setting of perfect competition.’” IPE suggests three levels of political analysis: the systemic level (macro-international politics); the domestic level, revealing competition of domestic interest groups and institutions; and the cognitive level, ideas that legitimate governmental policy making. If one is not thinking at all three levels of politics, any prediction will surely fail.

Whether IPE succeeds in mitigating the shortcomings of technical analysis or not, one can only say amen to the principle – and that, additionally, there’s surely even more to factor in. Beyond politics, there are issues of technology change, changes in culture, values, ideologies and perceptions that shape the future. Truth is, we don’t know how to quantify all this – and it’s certainly not tractable to quantitative measures for anything but the short term. Using the technical analysis to predict the euro’s status vs. the dollar in 2025 must return a result which (while even possibly correct) is one we cannot rely on.

read more

How to Build and Use Scenarios – Day Workshop – Washington DC

Last week I ran a one-day workshop (view program blurb – item C9 – here) “How to Build and Use Scenarios” in the pre-conference courses at the WFS annual meeting in DC. We had 38 attendees and by all accounts much was learned (including by me of course).

This was a fairly typical example of the Intro Workshop in Scenarios program that I run, so I’ve decided to post it on SlideShare, see link below. Let me know what you think.

What is different about this course at this venue, particularly, is that the attendees come from a wide spectrum of industries and sectors (from Nestle strategist to the Canadian military planners, to Mauri sustainability experts, and beyond), and have a very wide background/preparation in futures tools and methods. There were relative experts in the room, and some absolute novices. … nothing like a challenge for the facilitator!

Slides from the day are at http://www.slideshare.net/adgo/how-to-build-and-use-scenarios-day-workshop

some pix:

scenario workshop 2 How to Build and Use Scenarios   Day Workshop   Washington DC

scenario workshop 1 How to Build and Use Scenarios   Day Workshop   Washington DC

scenario workshop 3 How to Build and Use Scenarios   Day Workshop   Washington DC

scenario workshop 4 How to Build and Use Scenarios   Day Workshop   Washington DC

read more

Technologies change, but they don’t change themselves

In planning seminars and discussions about the future, a key topic is inevitably “technology change.” Participants will turn to each other, or perhaps to industry research or techno-tracking Web sites or “technology roadmaps” to consider technology changes in their industry and in the world at large, and how this may change the future.

So far so good. Tracking technology change is an important stage in scanning the external environment and anticipating sources or change and/or disruption. But no technology ever changed itself. History is littered with fabulous mind-bending, world-changing technologies that didn’t make it out of the lab. In fact, technologies only change because humans or human institutions want them to change AND (two separate hurdles here) they allow them to change.

Most people, most of the time, want technologies to change because they change for the better, improving products and services and/or making them cheaper. Companies want new technologies because improvements offer new sales options and (sometimes) industry competitive advantage, among other things. Societies express the desire for technology to go forward by stimulating and facilitating change in many ways (for example through government or industry funding of R&D or protecting intellectual property or making capital markets more transparent.)

Technology filtered by human choice
Once a technology breakthrough emerges, that’s hardly the end of the story. In fact it is still very much the beginning. New technologies of any importance are subject to public scrutiny and choices. Individually, or as a society, we ask ourselves, is this technology good for us? Debates happen, and power and politics and regulation takes its course, but one way or another technologies that most people like – mobile phone’s for example – will go forward while technologies such as GMOs will stall. Also, in a market economy, technologies are inescapably subject to consumer economics: those that raise user benefit (pass a buyer;s cost-benefit analysis) will be adopted. Those that don’t sit in the lab.

In other words, technology possibility is a matter of science and engineering, and the possibility frontier is expanding all the time, but the road from possibility to actuality is the rocky road of human ideas, preferences, and choices. Technology change means technology adoption, that is, it is a form of social change.

Why is this distinction important? Because one of the main reasons forecast fail is they see the technology possibility frontier as the future, underestimating the forces of social triage. There are two sites that I love that illustrate this wonderfully. Check out Paleo-Future (A Look into the Future that Never Was) and Modern Mechanics (Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today). Both are crammed with failed forecasts of this type. This is not to say that we cannot forecast usefully – much more to come on this in this journal – but it does give us pause in viewing many of today’s techno-inspired forecasts which make the same type of error. (Pics credit to the sites mentioned.)

read more

More on “Future Savvy” rationale, and then I’ll stop. Promise.

This is a how-to book: how to evaluate predictions about the future – how to assess which ones are credible and/or how credible they are (how likely the future will turn out similar to the prediction). It is not just a guide to bad forecasts, it is also about how to identify and extract what is valuable in any forecast. This benefits readers who are required to manage professional or  personal situations that depend on correctly anticipating change. Whatever we want to achieve – help a company be more profitable – solve the world’s problems – develop their career – success depends on a good reading of the future. There are many guides to the future (predictions) but no guides to the guides. This book fills that gap. It helps readers assess predictions so they can make better judgments about the future for themselves and their organizations.

Decision success always implies congruence between decisions and the world in which those decisions play out. If we decide today to launch a product, buy a house, study for a degree, build a new light rail system, or take any similar decision of significance, the environment of tomorrow will be a key factor in the success or failure of that decision. What we do will be tested by the future conditions that emerge. Where there is a good “fit” between the initiative and the environment it plays out in — “the right product at the right time” — we can expect success. If not, we should expect to fail. Our decisions are only as good as the view of the future they rest on. All opportunities and successes and profits are realized in the future. All threats, failures, and losses are in the future.

In a fast-moving world, we know that the future environment will be different to that of today in big or small ways. New technologies, market shifts, changes in legislation, or evolving social values damage or destroy the traditional good fit we have between ourselves and the world. To achieve “future fit” we therefore use forecasts to position ourselves and our organizations, creating (or renewing) the fit between our initiatives and environment. In some cases we may be strong enough also to influence future events and outcomes for our own future benefit, and forecasts help us do this too.

All enterprises benefit from narrowing down what they must adapt to and plan for – all effort spent preparing for a future that will not emerge is a waste of personal or organizational resources. Good forecasts are a key ingredient in limiting the vagaries of uncertainty, and therein working smarter not harder, avoiding surprises, exploiting new opportunities and plugging weaknesses in fitting in with the future, and where possible influencing the future to suit the organization. This is true not only of business. People and institutions of all types position themselves for success by anticipating and adapting to events, or shaping them. Whether it is an NGO raising money for developing-world children, an urban planner advocating a light rail system, a homeowner deciding to sell a house, or a student making a career choice, identical principles apply — a higher-quality reading of the future operating environment in which these decisions will play out is what separates winners from losers. We should all be vitally concerned with forecasts as we are all effectively betting significant resources on their validity.

read more

Future Savvy: What’s Under the Hood

The book Future Savvy shows readers how to critically judge forecasts for themselves. These are the chapters that take the reader there:

Chapter 1: Recognizing Forecast Intentions, deals with considerations of how forecasts come about, who makes them, and with what intention. Those who research and produce forecasts, those who invest in understanding trends and drivers of change, and those (including the media) who bring the forecasts and their implications to our attention, inevitably have reasons for doing so – to benefit from the knowledge by seizing opportunities or avoiding threats or by affecting outcomes in the world. Understanding a forecast’s “return on investment” gives us an important vantage point in assessing the merits of a forecast.

Chapter 2: The Quality of Information, shows how a forecast communicates information between forecaster and reader subject to the same standards of accuracy, truth-telling, and bias-control by which one would judge any communication. Forecasts can be very different in methods and goals, but all forecasts lay claim to factual truth, particularly truth in the data, and the argument deals with the various ways in which data can be less solid than it looks, even with the best intentions.

Chapter 3: Interpretation and Bias, considers how data – whether good or bad in itself – can be interpreted or misinterpreted in forecasting, that is, the “political” aspects of forecasting. Just as there is no value-free look at history, so too there is no value-free look to the future and asking the right questions allows us be ready to mentally rebalance forecasts that are presented.

Chapter 4: Paradigms and Perception, investigates how predictive statements are exposed to a broader form of interpretive bias that has to do with the forecaster’s mental model or “paradigm,” and the “zeitgeist” (spirit of the times) when the forecast is made. This chapter investigates situations where forecast failure is caused by failure to escape society’s current mental models – which often do not hold through the forecast period.

Chapter 5: The Utility Principle, considers economic and market forces, and the role of consumers, in promoting or resisting the future. Without reigning in creative thinking, some simple economic filters inevitably apply direction or timing realism to futurist flights of fancy.

Chapter 6: Drivers, Blockers, and Trends, consider drivers and blockers of change, and how viewing these dynamics improves forecast assessment. It identifies the roles of Drivers, Enablers, Friction, and Blockers acting on events to cause change or resist it, and problems in dumbly projecting current trends.

Chapter 7: The Limits of Quantitative Analysis, discusses the role of statistical analysis and quantitative modeling in predicting the future – where this is possible and useful and where it is not, and why not.

Chapter 8: The Systems Perspective, investigates “system effects,” which occur whenever different elements or variables that may appear isolated are in fact linked together, such that changes in one element cause changes in others. Anticipating future behavior of any variable hinges on identifying the broader systemic elements influencing it and failing to do this is a big part of what causes forecasts to fail.

Chapter 9: Living with Alternative Futures, investigates non-predictive ways of approaching change – where the tone is more about managing uncertainty than predicting the future. It acknowledges unfathomable complexity of most future questions and provides perspectives that raise chances of success in an inherently unpredictable future.

Chapter 10: Forecast Filtering in Action, illustrates the processes of the book by applying them in case studies to real-world sample forecasts that decision makers in business and policy areas might find themselves interacting with. This demonstrates how real everyday predictive material may be probed and critically evaluated, following the principles developed in previous chapters.

Chapter 11: A Forecast Filtering Checklist, is a cross-cutting checklist which summarizes the principles of the book in one convenient, thematic list.

read more