Skills and working principles
I most often work with clients who need to set a future direction for their organizations. I help them interpret change, see the future they may be facing, and decide their future aim.
This work involves reading complex situations, anticipating outcomes, reframing, defining purpose, devising strategies, and assessing choices.
Doing this requires a mix of skills and activities, ranging from sense making to neutral facilitation and visual language synthesis. In practice these blend together and may be barely noticeable as separate elements of the work. Still, describing the principles behind each of these process skills is a good way of explaining how my work is done.
When a group of people meet to make a decision, they invariably discuss it, no matter how much research and analysis has already been done. They review the situation, consider the available options and their merits, and arrive at a decision. All too often this discussion is ad hoc, dominated by perceptual bias and unconscious groupthink and it easily falls prey to a few strongly asserted opinions. It makes sense to convene a deliberate ‘strategic conversation’ which consciously raises the quality of the discussion, using independent facilitation and a disciplined process, to ensure that the intellect and judgement of the group is fully focused on the decision in hand. A great deal can be at stake, and it is worth focusing extra effort on these pivotal moments in an organization’s life. The idea of strategic conversation is central to the way I work, and is the medium through which other skills and techniques are focused.
The benefit of impartial facilitation is often underestimated. The idea of ‘neutral facilitation’ is that it aims to be strictly neutral as to outcome – it supports the process of strategic conversation without trying to impose any predetermined result. It seeks a balanced expression of viewpoints and preferences among the participants, to allow the collective will to be expressed. It is very difficult for any member of a decision making group to facilitate in a genuinely neutral way, as participants quite naturally have a stake in the outcome and a viewpoint they need to express. It is far easier for an outside facilitator to achieve a consensus result that takes all the ideas, views and positions into consideration in an even-handed and creative way. (Interaction Associates in San Francisco provided my initial training in neutral facilitation.)
Visual concept mapping
Very often the field of ideas being considered by a group is best captured and clarified using visual language mapping. The idea of visual language, popularised by US academic Bob Horn, is a means of expressing concepts and relationships using graphical conventions which transcend the linearity of written language. It is also inherently international and research shows it is more memorable than equivalent written recording. Creating one or more concept maps using visual language during the process of facilitation is an excellent way of focusing the attention of the group onto the creation of a shared collaborative construct, and away from purely interpersonal debate, which often gets caught up in rivalries and fails to produce a constructive or collaborative outcome.
The heart of futures and strategic thinking is ‘sense making’, a formal process – as defined by US academic Karl Weick – for turning a flow of inherently ambiguous information into meaning. My experience has shown that sense making provides the best description for the interpretive activity that lies at the heart of organizational learning. It works on the basis of noticing anomalies or features that stand out and ‘bracketing’ them. The term bracketing, adopted from phenomology, refers to becoming consciously aware that you are paying attention to a selected detail which stands out as being significant. From patterns formed by these significant details, new frames of meaning are constructed.
We make sense of any strategic situation using cognitive frames, simplified models that reflect the structure of the situation. These cognitive frames determine how we see strategic opportunities and threats, and they shape our view of the strategic objective and any decision to be made. Frames typically consist of metaphors, analogies, and perspectives, conveyed in narratives and diagrams, reflecting recurrent patterns, causal relationships, and our overall worldview.
In the words of Pierre Wack, the doyen of scenario planning at Shell in the 1970s, ‘A manager’s inner model never mirrors reality; it is always a construct. It deals with complexity by focusing on what really matters. It is a superior simplification of reality—the more so, the wider a manager’s span of responsibility is.’ He also said: ‘....it is extremely difficult for managers to break out of their worldview while operating within it. When they are committed to a certain way of framing an issue, it is difficult for them to see solutions that lie outside this framework.’
The ability to become aware of and reframe mental models or schemas is central to insightful perception, strategic creativity and innovation. All strategic facts and information are inherently ambiguous, and this means that decisions cannot be based purely on rational calculation. Ultimately, the quality of the decision or strategy will rest on the perspicacity of the framing and reframing – what Pierre Wack called ‘the gentle art of reperception’.
Systems thinking is what Peter Senge called the ‘fifth discipline’ needed for the creation of learning organizations. Emerging from the work of Jay Forrester at MIT in the 1970s, computer based systems analysis gave the ability to map the relationships between the parts of a system and then calculate the dynamic behaviour of the whole system over time. This revealed that there are what Senge called ‘system archetypes’ or characteristic patterns of behaviour which are linked to specific system structures. Systems can be mapped in detail using specialized software, but the fundamentally useful insight of systems thinking is that there are levels of explanation, leading from the obvious level of observed events, to the underlying behaviours which account for them, and then going deeper still to the system structures that cause the behaviours. Systems thinking is most useful as a habitual way of seeing and interpreting complexity, looking for interconnections and causal loops, and the emergent behaviours associated with them.
Mental models are most powerful when they correspond to systemic models of the reality being researched. What is called the first law of cybernetics, W. Ross Ashby’s ‘Law of Requisite Variety’, states that a model used for regulating a system must have at least as many potential states of variation as the system itself. Translated into systems thinking terms, this means that mental models need to to be based on comprehensive information about the structure and degrees of freedom of the system being represented.
Systems thinking can also be used to represent the business model of an organization which, to be successful, needs to be as close as possible to what Stafford Beer called a ‘viable system’. This insight can be used both for mapping the existing business model, which helps in understanding points of vulnerability to future change, as well as in designing new or adapted business models.
The process of developing strategic understanding and future insight feeds on a flow of information from outside the organization. This research process typically involves in-depth research interviews, internally and externally. It can also involve ‘learning journeys’, which provide experiential immersion in new and developing contexts and situations which provide a better sense of what is happening than simply learning about them about them indirectly. The research phase also involves conventional internet scanning and literature research.
The aim is to look for evidence of change in the business and strategic environment that signals future outcomes, but also to understand the mental models being used to interpret the situation, and the expectations and beliefs about the future held by the various actors, all of which have predictive value.
The effectiveness of the exploratory phase depends a great deal on skilful perception, which involves such things as ‘deep listening’ and a constant movement between the big picture and the details, looking for patterns and connections.
Techniques and methods
In combination with the skills and principles listed above, I use a number of different formal methods or techniques for futures thinking, including scenarios, three horizons, morphological analysis, and backcasting. I often frame these using a proprietary ‘star, mountain, chessboard, self’ framework that I first developed for a government client in Canberra, Australia, as described here.