I consult on the continuum between future thinking, strategy and innovation to introduce opportunities to organisations to create advantage. For current thinking check out the IdeaPort blog on this site.
I watched the John Oliver show about the renewal of the Patriot Act upcoming in June. His central argument is that the American people don’t care about NSA mass surveillance programmes as it’s too complicated.
He goes to Moscow and interviews Ed Snowden, and you can watch Snowden struggle to understand how to frame his story. Then John Oliver reframes the massive complexity of NSA surveillance around, errrr…Dick Pics sent online.
He shows Snowden interviews with people in Times Square before and after the reframing, and the results are absolutely clear when it comes to the formation of great narrative.
The full clip is 30min but you need to watch it in it’s entirety to see the beauty of the formation of the story. Before the reframing people aren’t particularly worried about the powers of the NSA. After the reframing they are passionately against it.
It’s a virtual masterclass in how to reframe complexity in such a way that it can trigger a narrative to be re-told. It’s also an extremely topical and relevant story in itself.
This is a five minute read which is well worth the time. It outlines some collisions between megatrends that are already in plain sight and makes the point that:
If you are a leader in government or a company, you still have time to build the necessary strategies and capabilities for a robust and effective response.
The challenge with this is always how to focus a board or executive team on the long term, and in my experience this is challenging at the best of times. For further context about this, I recommend reading about the three-box model in an HBR article from 2011.
Essentially this points out that most leaders focus on operational efficiency today, when they should actually be thinking about creating more value by inventing the future. From left to right, Box One is operational, Box Two is Change and Box Three is the future. Most value comes from Box Three, but nearly all leaders focus on Box One. In a world of accelerating change, this is not the value to endure organisational longevity.
One of the issues that leadership teams often wrestle with is the length of time it takes for innovation to bear fruit. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet for this, but that organisations should try a range of approaches. For large organisations, innovation at scale can be achieved through a range of software solutions including MindJet SpigitEngage. However it’s still hard to beat the face-to-face interaction of small teams racing against a clock in the same room. With that in mind a new book from Michael Schrage favours the 5×5 approach:
…half of Schrage’s new book is devoted to an innovation methodology called 5×5 that captures the benefits of experimentation. In the 5×5 approach, writes Schrage, “A minimum of 5 teams of 5 people each are given no more than 5 days to come up with a portfolio of 5 ‘business experiments’ that should take no longer than 5 weeks to run and cost no more than 5,000 euros to conduct. Each experiment should have a business case attached that explains how running the experiment gives tremendous insight into a possible savings of 5 million euros or a 5-million-euro growth opportunity for the firm.”
Schrage says that he’s been facilitating these 5×5 exercises in companies, under the auspices of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Moscow School of Management since 2009. The results: “There are always—without exception—at least three or four experiments that make top management sit up straight, their eyes widening or narrowing, dependent on temperament, and incredulously ask, ‘We can do that!?’”
From the excellent strategy & business publication (formerly booz) comes this short article about where the good stuff comes from. The paragraph below sums it up:
“…breakthrough strategies rarely come from the typical strategic planning effort. Nor do they typically result from the common practice of generating and evaluating strategic options. And they certainly aren’t inspired in a traditional board offsite, executive retreat, or brainstorming session. Instead, they start with individuals working on big, specific challenges who find novel ideas in unexpected places, creatively combine them into innovative strategies, and personally take those strategies to fruition—against all odds.”
The FT has published a long article looking at the history of prediction. What makes it worth reading is that it references the work of Philip Tetlock, who’s research into forecasting categorised people as either foxes or hedgehogs (this is explained in the article).
It’s worth a read:
So what is the secret of looking into the future? Initial results from the Good Judgment Project suggest the following approaches. First, some basic training in probabilistic reasoning helps to produce better forecasts. Second, teams of good forecasters produce better results than good forecasters working alone. Third, actively open-minded people prosper as forecasters.
But the Good Judgment Project also hints at why so many experts are such terrible forecasters. It’s not so much that they lack training, teamwork and open-mindedness – although some of these qualities are in shorter supply than others. It’s that most forecasters aren’t actually seriously and single-mindedly trying to see into the future. If they were, they’d keep score and try to improve their predictions based on past errors. They don’t.
What exactly is a serendipity architect? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is two-fold depending on how the question is being asked.
First the title is a litmus test for who I’d like to work with. If people look at me sceptically when they ask, then it’s a fairly safe bet that working with that person is going to be difficult (like the time one executive introduced me to an audience as a “self described serendipity architect.”). On the other hand, the people that I like to work with smile when they mention the title, or are simply curious.
Secondly it describes a lot of what I do – keeping abreast of a lot of fast moving areas, discussing interesting developments with people that know these areas well, pulling insights from the mix and then working with leadership teams to understand how they can take advantage of the opportunity. One of the comments I hear during the last phase of this process goes along the lines of “wasn’t it lucky that we…” My response is that this isn’t luck. It’s designed serendipity.
If you want a longer read about how serendipity happens in an online world, Wired magazine published an extract from the book “Smarter Than You Think.” The last paragraph of the extract sums it up nicely:
The birth of Ushahidi is a perfect example of the power of public thinking and multiples. Okolloh could have simply wandered around wishing such a tool existed. Kobia could have wandered around wishing he could use his skills to help Kenya. But because Okolloh was thinking out loud, and because she had an audience of like-minded people, serendipity happened.
I encourage to people to mix in areas that are outside their knowledge domain, and to keep an open mind when they do so. The reason for this is because insights often happen not when you’re looking harder at a challenge, but when you take a step back and look around to see how others have approached analogous challenges. The January 2014 issue of Wired has an article about a doctor seeking different ways of treating cancer, and it makes for an interesting read on it’s own. However the part that got my attention was the following when he explained where he found new directions for his thinking:
The second moment occurred five years later, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There Agus met the famed physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles. Talking to Gell-Mann crystallized the ideas that Leaf’s article had set in motion. “My ‘Aha!’ moment came when he talked about the complex systems he confronted in physics and how he would go about trying to build models,” Agus wrote in The End of Illness. Physicists were able to build theoretical models of things they still didn’t completely understand and make discoveries using those models. Why hadn’t doctors approached medicine like this? he wondered.
It’s a great example of looking outside to go deeper inside.
About half of my time is now being spent on the Sensing City project. As a result updates to this blog will be infrequent as the project gathers pace. In the meantime you can also monitor progress on the Sensing City FaceBook page. Thanks.
In 2011 the Prime Ministers office in Singapore sponsored a week of foresight conversations. This year saw the next iteration and I was invited back to the conversation. Once again there were about twenty of us from around the world that were invited, and the diversity of the conversation was only trumped by the quality. My notes are in mind-map form, and therefore I’m going to post some images from the event along with some insights and summation.
Firstly – the pictures:
Graphical recording from the fourth day of the week on the future of growth.
Graphical recording from the fourth day of the week on the future of governance.
Dave Snowden presenting his framework for foresight and complexity.
Insights (in no order)
It’s strategically important to have a good imagination and an adaptable mind.
Most decision makers want simple answers, and ask the wrong questions. They want an answer, but in complex environments there may not be a simple answer.
there is book called “Future Babble” that looked at previous predictions of the future, and found that the most inaccurate predictions were the ones that were most convinced of their accuracy.
the real lack of skills in the world is the lack of generalists
The waiting time to purchase a new industrial robot is 4-6 months.
People are hard wired to take more notice of failure than success – from an evolutionary point of view it’s more important
To try to summarise the week is to fall into the trap of thinking conversation is a linear process. The discussions were so varied it’s almost impossible to bring it together, however the most important points for me related to foresight, policy and governance:
The world is becoming increasingly complex, and as a result leaders need to be adept at understanding that decision making can not always be causal. In order to make good decisions you need firstly to understand the environment you’re working in and Dave Snowden provides guidance here with his framework:
Dave Snowdens Cynefin (kin-are-fin) Framework
If you find yourself on the left hand side of the framework then you need to understand complexity theory, and acknowledge that there may be no right answer. That’s not easy for decision makers raised to believe that they need to make fast decisions based on minimal information.
I’ll close with a wonderful analogy that was provided in a conversation about the work of Karl Popper: you can begin to understand complexity through the lens of clouds vs clocks. You can take apart a clock to understand it, but to understand clouds you need to look at many different variables. Clouds cannot be taken apart.
This week I’m in Singapore in a series of workshops that I’ve been invited to. It’s been a fascinating first day, exploring how to evolve the next generation of horizon scanning tools. I’ll blog some of the more interesting insights over the next few days, but in the meantime here’s the workshop today and key insights.