Introducing Executives to Anticipatory
How should executives and managers plan for the future? Of course, there are many, many creative responses to this question. Anticipatory Leadership integrates systems thinking and scenario planning in a way that interrogates the future, asking it to elaborate on the clues already in the present to reveal alternative futures that might emerge. What follows is our response to an RFP we received recently, which I think you might find of interest. Even though we didn't get the job, I still like what we came up with.Two truths:
- You win some and you lose some
- The journey is as important as the destination
Holistic Thinking and Global Achievement
World class jugglers balance a multiplicity of moving objects while maintaining a dynamic stillness. They remain alert, strong and centered while things around them are in motion. Designer, artist and photographer, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy used the term “suspended equilibrium” to capture this capacity.[i]
It is widely accepted that ours is an era of turbulence, where the movement of one system is both the result of actions created by other systems and, simultaneously, a force acting on tangential systems. Leadership entails a sensitivity to organizational ecosystems and a capacity to explain an organization’s environment to others in a way that galvanizes creative, strategic and well-considered action while remaining alert and centered in response to change.
Anticipatory Leadership: Skillfully navigating an organization toward its future
Anticipatory Leadership is our term for the type of executive ability in which futures thinking and strategic action are manifested in positive, affirmative action. The program we propose here provides participants with an introduction to this way of thinking.[ii]
We all have “memories of the future," images of how our personal situations, our organizations and the world as a whole are unfolding that guide our action in the present. In many instances, those views are tacit, i.e., they shape thought, attitude, and behavior at a pre-conscious level we don’t pay attention to. Many of us would be hard pressed to describe our vision of the future in detail, much less to provide the data behind it. When we do express these images, it is often in a context where others already agree with us. When there is a divergence of opinion, expressed views of the future often lead to debate, disputation and polarization rather than strategic inquiry and dialogue, especially when that conversation challenges sacred cows and upends long held assumptions. A leader who is able to engage groups in open, respectful dialogue leading to a better understanding of possible alternative futures is rare.
It is our intention that this program will add to the participants’ repertoire of leadership skills so that they will be better able to convene, articulate and utilize the strategic foresight of teams of empowered and engaged members of their organizational ecosystems. We propose to use the Structural Dynamics Strategic Leadership process to explicate the power of Anticipatory Leadership through a combination of experiential learning, lecture and interactive discussion.
Here is how Anticipatory Leadership and the Structural Dynamics Leadership process map:
We propose to structure our presentation as follows:
1. Introduction: We articulate our approach to leadership (Anticipatory Leadership) and outline the process we'll be using to frame the afternoon's work (Structural Dynamics).
2. Experiential Module: The participants experience a way of investigating the tectonic tensions and suspended equilibrium between the present and the future. Based on the Exploring phase of Structural Dynamics, the characteristic of the Anticipatory Leader that is most called into play here is that of Futurist.
3. Proceeding: We turn then to an explanation of how anticipatory leaders apply this experience to discover strategies based on the future possibilities they have been developing, embody the strategies within their organization, and sustain the viability of the selected strategies (via implementation and monitoring).
4. Wrap Up: We finish with an interactive discussion of the learning that took place during the session.
A decision issue provides the focus for a Structural Dynamics intervention. It is an issue of vital importance to the future of the whole organization. We work with clients in advance of the program to identify a decision issue that would be highly relevant to the participants. Below is an example of a decision issue germane to the design of life sustaining organizations:
What kind of environment, technologies, policies and practices do we need to provide for the people in our organization in order to succeed in an increasingly complex and interconnected global economy?[iii]
We introduce the idea of Critical Uncertainties, dynamic, high impact forces that are of substantial consequence to the Decision Issue but highly uncertain regarding how they will play out. Depending on the Decision Issue, climate change, the implications of an aging population, or the political/economic power of women may be examples of critical uncertainties. Participants engage in a process of identifying and selecting the most critical and most uncertain forces related to their decision issue.
Next, we introduce the Scenario Archetypes and use this model to demonstrate that the critical uncertainties they have selected can shape starkly different versions of the future.
2. Experiential module
Participants, in scenario teams, “live” in four distinct scenarios of the future, grappling with how the critical uncertainties have played out in their future world:
Status Quo: Tomorrow will look pretty much like today, except not as good
Discipline: Very soon, lots of people will realize that we’ve all got to pitch in to make long overdue and much needed investments
Breakdown: Everything is going to hell
Breakthrough: Utopia is just around the corner
The teams explain the characteristics of their world to the whole group and how their scenario world constitutes a potential reality.
Participants learn that very different futures are quite possible, driven by factors already in play in the present. This enhanced openness to alternative worldviews, encourages broader, more inclusive mindsets and advances participants’ ability to work effectively with others, particularly those who hold different perspectives on the future.
Based on the participants’ experience in the previous module, we describe the how leaders use these world views to engage their organizations in strategy development and implementation across an ecosystem. This presentation and interactive dialogue considers how to use the future (in the form of divergent scenarios) to guide strategic action, and how the development of forward looking plans enables, and is enriched by, close ties across internal and external organizational sub-systems and boundaries.
Discovering Strategic Pathways: How strategies derive from scenarios.
For the sake of illustration, let’s continue to explore the decision issue related to the design of life sustaining organizations described above. Further, let’s assume that the political and economic power of women has been chosen as one of the critical uncertainties to analyze. A scenario team living in a “Status Quo” future will develop different strategies than one living in a “Breakthrough” future. For example, the former might anticipate that prospective female executives will be found, primarily, in women’s colleges and elite schools and plan their recruitment initiatives built on that assumption. The latter scenario group might believe that a flood of qualified women are going to receive certificates of achievement from MOOC's[iv] proliferating all over the planet and construct a recruitment program based on that assumption.
We show how to use a strategy matrix to evaluate all of the strategies developed by scenario teams.
The matrix differentiates between robust, contingent and no-go strategies. Robust strategies seem to work across all scenarios; contingent work in only one or a few; No-go’s work in none. Continuing with our illustration, attending to educational developments would seem to be a robust strategy for the construction of life sustaining organizations, regardless of the future that is unfolding, but investing in research and achieving presence in the digital education market place might be a contingent strategy relevant to only specific scenarios.
The emphasis on articulating and evaluating strategies stimulates a comprehension of what it means to engage in the contextual and strategic analysis of complex systems. It will challenge participants to start thinking about how to work across the boundaries of future thinking, e.g., how to navigate discussions with those who haven’t been thinking in the same terms.
Embodying Organizational Strategy by Integrating Networks: We now lay out an approach to strategy implementation as a way of addressing the challenge of how to implement a strategy process grounded in futures thinking. Our primary point here is that the real action will be in the participants own leadership behavior is key to success. They must be the change.
For example, what would it mean for each of them as executives in their organizational contexts to act in a way that anticipated the full and equal empowerment of women in their own organization? Given current demographics, this might seem like a remote possibility. But, what if their strategic analysis led them see that this seemingly distant prospect is going to become a reality sooner than anyone might imagine? What would that mean for them in their executive roles? What would they have to do to build support for strategies that anticipate this possibility?
Sustaining Results and Maintaining Momentum: We discuss the need to monitor outcomes of strategy implementation, evaluate results and modify as necessary using the scenarios.
Leaders ask themselves: Are we on the right track? What changes occurring in the environment necessitate course corrections? What internal and external data confirm the path we’re on?
We provide three tools for monitoring results: signposts, indicators and warning. Signposts mark changes within an organization that result from a strategic direction (e.g., percentages of women in managerial and/or technical positions). Indicators reveal the impact of changes internally and externally (e.g., applications by women for open positions, increasingly aggressive recruitment of women by competitors). Warnings are events in the external environment that provide information regarding an impending change toward a particular future condition (e.g., the election of a political party opposed to the expansion of opportunities for working women).
Certainly the men and women involved in any leadership program will have their own rich ideas on how to sustain movement toward strategic objectives. This conversation will provide an opportunity to learn from the knowledge in the room.
4. Wrap Up: Anticipatory Leaders Create Organizational Futures
Those of us involved in achieving inclusive, sustainable, value-based global growth are concerned with the length of time it take for these systems to be created and to demonstrate results. In The Innovators, Walter Isaacson shows that interpersonal squabbles, inadequate inquiry structures, organizational politics and miscalculations, and international geo-political rigidities frequently put the brakes on innovation and even derailed it completely -- for a century in the case of the computer.[v]
Executives and leaders throughout organizations who know how to create strategic dialogue among divergent parties achieve the best quality of thought, organizational learning, engagement and results from their efforts. The skills of futurist, strategist and integrator allow anticipatory leaders to optimize the collective intelligence residing within their organizations. Like the juggler, they are able to maintain strength, concentration and balance in the face of demanding stimuli coming at them continuously from multiple directions. This workshop will provide an introduction to our ideas on developing these skills.
[ii] The approach presented here is laid out in the detailed discussion of various technologies for futures thinking and scenario planning developed in our and other publications.
[iii] It is worth noting that the war for talent is always more intense than we might suspect and is likely to heat up under conditions of anything like a global economic expansion. For example, the overall US unemployment rate is presently 5.7%, but unemployment among college graduates is presently only 2%. Within some fields, there is virtually no unemployment. Considerations regarding what it takes to find, recruit and hold truly talented individuals and team seems like it might be quite relevant topic for executives participating in leadership development programs.
[iv] MOOCs = Massive Open Online Courses