Clients and Projects
My clients are typically strategists and decision makers in business and government. My work ranges from multi-year futures research projects, through to one-off ideation sessions, board facilitation work, keynote presentations and executive education.
The facilitation and research projects typically involve future-oriented strategic thinking which focuses on exploring and interpreting newly emerging complex situations to generate actionable strategic insight.
I began working in the futures field in 1991 when I joined Global Business Network (GBN), a newly-formed futures company in northern California. GBN was a unique subscription-based network and consulting practice that aimed to alert its members to potential future developments ‘six months before they would read about them in The Economist’. It also offered its members access to Shell’s scenario method, which until then was known only to Shell insiders – such as those who had started GBN. It carried out scenario consulting engagements for a wide range of US corporates and government agencies, in many different industries and areas of public policy. The scenarios I developed included the futures of energy, steel, airlines, chemicals, biotechnology, and agriculture, for various member corporations in those industries.
One example was a project which looked at the future of salmon fishing in Alaska and its prospects in competition with farmed salmon, which offered many advantages to US supermarket buyers, one of whom was a participant in the project.
In the mid-1990s I moved to Australia to continue scenario work on behalf of GBN. I undertook many scenario projects there, such as the future of transport for Adelaide, tax for the Australian Taxation Office, wine in the Margaret River Valley, higher education for Swinburne University, fertilisers for Wesfarmers, and similar work for DuPont, BHP, ICI, and other major companies.
Strategy as learning
When I joined GBN in 1991, my work acquired a new dimension – ‘planning as learning’ – a phrase coined by GBN network member Don Michael. This and the closely related idea of ‘the living company’ pioneered by Arie de Geus, another member of GBN, with its central concept of organizational learning, have all been underlying principles of my work since that time. Organizational learning does not necessarily require an explicit view of the future and is often based on catalyzing rapid adaptation to change in the strategic environment. In this case the critical factors are the timely awareness by the organisation of external change and the existence of an internal function that can learn from the change and develop new strategies and products that are a better fit with the new conditions.
Since the 1990s the learning perspective has evolved into the present enthusiasm for agile strategy – or what might be called ‘strategy as learning’, since the learning principle remains a constant. Despite the current emphasis on management agility, the long bets required for market-creating innovations require discipline to set and hold a strategic direction over time, while adapting to tactical shifts with agility.
As an example, in 2008 I carried out a strategy project of this type for Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) that mapped problematic shifts occurring in the software outsourcing industry and identified two approaching watersheds which CSC used to guide the successful reorientation of its corporate strategy. .
Strategy and new technology
In the late 1980s, before joining GBN, I was working at the consulting and contract research company Arthur D. Little (ADL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there I undertook a number of projects which involved devising new applications of existing technology and finding innovative solutions to technological problems. Often the potential for technological solutions was inhibited by decisions made at the ‘strategic level’ in large corporations, where it seemed there was little appreciation of the strategic contribution technology could make.
This led me to look for better ways of identifying and communicating the potential for technological innovation as the basis for new strategy or future positioning. For example, in 2002 I conducted research for Nissan North America into the future of automotive drivelines, predicting the technologies that would be involved and how they would address social and environmental issues. This prompted Nissan to sign a technology exchange agreement with Toyota, leading to the development of the Nissan Altima, Nissan’s first hybrid car in North America.
A similar approach was involved in work I did for Clorox, the household cleaning products company, looking at the future of chlorine and the potential for chlorine-free products, which had not been considered up to that time. After a lengthy development process to ensure the effectiveness of the products, Clorox successfully launched its GreenWorks line of cleaners in 2008.
Another project of this type involved looking at the future of titanium dioxide, a chemical widely used for whiteness in paint and plastics. This study, which focused on the high refractive index of titanium dioxide, led to innovative proposals for substitute materials.
I also applied this approach in 2012 in open-source research I conducted for the UK Ministry of Defence that explored the future of cyberspace and its emerging implications for national security, leading to a public report and a novel way to plot ‘game moves’ between the competing users and uses of cyberpower.
Sustainability and environment
My work at ADL included making a pioneering contribution to the development of industrial ecology, the idea that technology systems could be designed using the operative principles of ecosystems, reducing their environmental footprint and allowing them to mesh with natural ecosystems and the Earth’s ‘biogeochemical’ system as a whole. This approach, which I described in a 1991 ADL white paper, was the forerunner of what is now known as the ‘circular economy’.
Many of my subsequent consulting projects have involved sustainability and technology for the environment. For example, I conducted a major study of sustainability for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto. EPRI kindly allowed a public report based on this work to be released by GBN in 1999.
Another engagement, in 1994, involved introducing forty senior executives in Monsanto to the concept of sustainability. Luminaries of sustainability such as Donella Meadows and Herman Daly were invited to take part in this workshop event, but although Monsanto subsequently used the ideas in its corporate communications they had difficulty adopting all the sustainability criteria as a basis for product development.
‘Future of’ presentations
Insights and non-proprietary findings arising from project work often lend themselves to public keynote presentations at conferences and corporate retreats, focusing on various aspects of the future and its implications for a given industry or organization. Over the years I have given dozens of such presentations, in the US, Australia, the UK and other countries. Sometimes I carry out research specifically to deliver in the form of a keynote-style presentation, usually for internal audiences in client organizations.
One example was a presentation I delivered on the future of biotechnology to an in-house audience convened in 1997 by CSIRO, the Australian government scientific research organization.
Another example was a keynote presentation I delivered at the New Zealand Public Service Senior Management Conference in October 2001, the month after 9/11, titled ‘global storm warning’ (see transcript).
When I joined GBN in 1991 it was apparent that there was a need for explaining scenario-based planning to GBN member companies. I subsequently co-designed and helped to teach the first ever scenarios training course, which GBN offered annually to its members. Later, in Australia, I co-designed another scenarios training programme which I co-taught in Sydney for several years. After I returned to the UK in 2001, I helped to develop and teach the Oxford Scenarios Programme, first at Templeton College and subsequently at the Saïd Business School.
Since that time I have taught scenarios and future-related topics at a number of business schools and other educational institutes in the UK, including the Møller Institute, the Cambridge Judge Business School, the University of Bath School of Management, Ashridge Business School, and Schumacher College.