Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Critical Uncertainties: Pivot Points for the Future

In spite of the fulminations of the best prognosticators, futurists, pundits and astrologers, no one really knows what the future is going to bring. We all want some things to happen and we probably don't want other things Parallel Worldsto happen, but our ability to bring things about is limited. The world is an infinitely complicated place. In fact, as if matters weren't already confusing enough, string theory and quantum physics is positing that ours may be but one of an infinite number of universes including a full-blow version that may be a bubble tangential to the one we are in right this moment!

Structural Dynamics is an approach to considering the future that doesn't claim to know what's coming but can help us identify what we need to be thinking about. It does this by identifying critical uncertainties that could go in any direction, and, by doing so, set the future on a course.

A critical uncertainty is something that is very important, but whose direction is not clear. As this Escher print of Night and Day demonstrates, where things are headed is dynamic: the same set of factors and forces can interact toward starkly different, even if related
Esher's Night & Day and symmetrical, outcomes. In our work, we look for forces that everyone sees as fundamental to the well-being of their organization or to the situation of interest but around which there is a lot of disagreement or confusion.

Through a process that involves scanning, discussion and voting, each organization arrives at its own conclusions regarding its particular critical uncertainties. We would expect the uncertainties of the utility industry to be different than those faced by a professional nursing association, for example (although we have found commonalities in exploring the question!).

Ron Heifetz and others have pointed out the powerful learning opportunities that come from probing the thinking and worldviews of
people, groups and institutions who hold strong conflicting views and, yet, have a degree of respect for each other. The process that leads up to the identification of critical uncertainty legitimates these diverse perspectives, so it is an excellent way for leaders to facilitate strategic conversations that generate organizational and social movement.

Typically, an organization or a community will confront a number of these critical uncertainties simultaneously. Discovering them and exploring their interactions is a way of developing very rich scenarios of possible futures. This allows the building powerful organizational and community strategies. Critical uncertainties are like fulcrums, and the organization that sees where the leverage points are is in a position to take advantage of its insight and foresight to attract and hold the key talent it needs to thrive in whatever future unfolds.

There are a number of macro critical uncertainties that all human systems face, and knowing what these are is a way of considering the dynamics of the world system as a whole. Much hangs in the balance on the spinning of these particular wheels.

Here are some that we've been thinking about:
  • The rights and power of women worldwide
  • The impact of climate change
  • The mix of public and private power
  • The internationalization of law
  • The level and type of educational achievement
  • The city as a strategic entity
  • The reliability of food and water supply
  • The availability of raw materials
  • The introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence into everyday living
Of course, there are probably other drivers that come to your mind immediately and there may be factors mentioned in this list that don't seem all that uncertain or important, but, hey, it's our list and we're sticking to it!... (At least for now!)

Let's explore a couple of these briefly to see why they qualify as critical uncertainties out book:

The power and rights of women: Many educated people in the
West assume that women's rights are expanding in an inexorable fashion. Women are serving at virtually every level of government, e.g., Chancellor Merkel in Germany and Hillary Clinton as the US Secretary of State. Academic achievement by women is outpacing men in a number of countries, including the United States and Algeria. Female athletes are setting strength and endurance records and entering sports that were once off-limits. The list of these sorts of achievements is very long. Women seem unstoppable!

However, the forces opposing the equality and power of women start at birth. Multiple studies demonstrate that the preference for male children is virtually universal. In India, a special "ladies train" has been created for women administrative workers to provide them with protection from the harassment they experience when commuting with male passengers, but men still get on the women's train and berate them. In
Iran, Guinea, and countless other societies, women are the particular target of angry men working to maintain the power of established governments, which frequently lace their ideology with religious doctrine that specifies a subservient position to women in the social and family order. Orthodox Jews yell at women seeking to pray at the Wailing Wall and throw things at them; Southern Baptists assert that women must submit to their husbands. Catholicism remains adamant in the view that women cannot and will not serve as priests.

Seen from the perspective of these data, the expansion of women's rights do not appear to be guaranteed in any respect. In fact, a female colleague of ours wonders if the last decade hasn't seen the zenith of the power of women, and whether ten years from now we might not see a much more rigid set of conditions than we do at present. Misogyny and traditional views on the role of women are alive and very well, thank you!

So, there is a powerful dynamic tension between these expansive and contracting forces. Whatever way the story works out, the condition of women's right is and will have incredible impact on all work organizations. How a particular organization positions itself vis-a-vis this tectonic tension and how it makes its stance clear will have a major impact on its attractiveness to women and the role that women will play in shaping its future.

The city as a strategic entity: While we haven't seen him in a long time, Jeb
Brugmann is a deeply respected colleague and a friend. His Urban Revolution is a recent contribution that builds upon his decades as a global citizen, describing a range of solutions to help local communities access the benefits of globalization, and to help global organizations engage in local communities and markets. Jeb lays out the success of a number of "strategic cities," including Barcelona, Chicago, and Curitiba, Brazil, in galvanizing the true and stable elites of a city--not necessarily its most well-to-do, but the people who constitute the metropolitan areas local leadership and community networks--to develop and implement innovations that put those places out front while other cities founder.

In other words, Jeb is a member of the professional urban planning and development community, which has long sought to influence cities to be rational entities pursuing the best interests of a maximal number of its citizens. And, of late, very powerful technologies, such as the Smarter Cities initiatives at IBM, are being brought to bear on the conditions of large metropolitan areas in ways that seem to be full of hope for improvement in the functioning of urban life. When one sees crime in New York City falling to levels not seen in forty years, there is reason to believe that the quality of urban life might be moving toward a positive tipping point.

On the other hand, the problem with this strategic orientation is that cities are continuously rent asunder by a phenomenal range of forces that can make them absolutely hellish places to live. Overcrowding, poor infrastructure, inadequate resources, crime, lack of housing, social/political/ethnic hierarchies and tradition, pollution, suspicion, architectural and topographical barriers to communication and interaction, etc. all make cities places where people look out for themselves and their own.

According the United Nations, 60+% of the world's population is now living in cities, including 19 cities with more than 10,000,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, the UN asserts that 100% of the world's population is linked in to urban life, so that's about as critical as any critical uncertainty is going to get! The status of cities is key to the life-sustaining quality of the millions of organizations that reside within them and depend upon them.

So, what is going to happen with cities? Again, the crystal is murky: Global interconnectivity, the press of common problems and an onslaught of new thinking could usher in a new, much more strategically-focused era; on the other hand, long-standing animosities, the sheer weight of a seemingly endless number of problems, the press of other concerns could take the city deeper into the pit of dysfunctionality. The future of cities is very important, but it's absolutely not predetermined.

We believe that this kind of analysis could be applied to each of nine domains listed above (and probably more). The organization and the leaders who are seeing and using "big picture" forces such as these to build their strategy, in general, and their work environment strategies, in particular, will be way out in front of those who assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday or that whatever comes along will be manageable through the existing repertoire of behaviors and mental models.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Visit to the Kennedy Space Center

We spent a few days in Florida recently, and a visit to the Kennedy Space Center was one of the highlights. It was truly inspirational to be reminded of what human kind, and the United State in particular, is capable of once our mind is set to a purpose. Something like 400,000 scientists and engineers worked on the Apollo project over the course of the 1960s, many starting their career as a result of the investment that the US made in the NASA EntranceNational Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000,000 separate systems had to work together pretty much flawlessly for the moon landings to be successful.

The entire visit was quite awe-inspiring. Here are a few of the incredibly powerful moments:

One, was the IMAX description of the design and construction of the International Space Station and seeing how the astronauts live on a daily basis. Wow!!!! The 45 minute film is in 3D, an entertainment technology that, by the way, seems poised on the edge of a powerful resurgence. Untethered by gravity has a very dream like quality as people and things float around everywhere in a surrealistic landscape that would have made Salvidore Dali's mouth water. Furthermore, knowing that the space station was initally the result of collaboration between the former Soviet Union and the United States and that now something like 69 different countries have been involved in the project is, again, an indication of the positive consequences of holding common cause.

Second, hearing John Kennedy proclaim "We choose to go to the moon!" was a thrilling. (This video clip's dramatic music is really unnecessary; Kennedy's energy alone is sufficient.) His declaration that it is the hard things that are really worth doing is a powerful reminder of what it takes to achieve something really great, and one that is sorely needed in such a graceless age as ours is too often. Furthermore, John Kennedy may have been a man with real flaws--as many very powerful people are--but the man could really speak when he had something to say.

Third, at one point during the tour of the Apollo command center where some of the twelve astronauts (only twelve!) who actually walked on the moon remark on their experience. One, perhaps Alan Shepard, spoke of crying upon looking back at the glorious beauty of the Earth, seeing its fragility from a far perspective, seeing it whole, and lamenting the pettiness and hostility that jeopardizes the well-being, the future of our species on this wonderful speck on life in the vastness of the universe. Talk about a call to action for the sustenance of life in our complex organizational systems that do so much to determine what our fate on this planet will be!

We did feel that there was a bit more of an emphasis on humanity's "destiny!" to explore space than we feel. It is probably true that humanity is innately adventurous and thrills at exploration. We want to know what's "out there," and, increasingly, many of us want to know what's going on inside of us as well. But, it may be that realizing the real potential of this planet, e.g., simply addressing poverty, would be a sufficiently gripping process of discovery for many of us. We've gone to the Moon, and we will probably go beyond it, but we still face a daunting set of challenges right here on Earth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A book in progress on Life Sustaining Organizations

We continue to make progress on our newest publication, Life Sustaining Organizations, a manual devoted to the challenge of creating of work environments that will attract, house, support and retain key talent that organizations can rely upon to lead them forward into whatever challenges and exciting possibilities the future may bring. Life-sustaining organizations nourish the vitality of the people who give them life, purpose and direction, and they recognize their dependence on the well-being of the natural environment within which we all exist.

We're writing this book because we've both had really excellent working experiences and we've both had and observed many work environments that were deeply unsatisfying. A wide range of factors that contribute to the quality of an organization's life sustaining qualities, including, for example: Are people encouraged to be creative? Do they get to see the effect of the efforts? Does the workplace acknowledge our needs as social animals? Is there a conscious and continuous consideration of the relationship between the organization and the natural environment.

Architectural choices are certainly important to the creations of life-sustaining organizations. For example, Malcolm Wells, recently deceased, (at left) developed a potent ecological perspective that included a set of goals for all new buildings, e.g., the requirement to "use solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful." Wells had an epiphany after designing the RCA pavillion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York and realizing that his work and all the other buildings were going to torn down just as whatever had been there before was destroyed to make way for yet another temporary design. He concluded that maybe whatever the natural environment was before humanity started imprinting its impression upon it needed to be treated with greater respect.

The book lays out a way of developing life-sustaining organizational strategies by combining systems thinking with scenario planning. The graphic at right presents an overview of the process, which we call structural dynamics.

The process begins with an effort to convene the whole system for a inquiry into the forces driving the future of the organization. Every organization faces its own particular set of "critical uncertainties"--big issues whose direction is unclear--although there are probably a set of uncertainties that virtually all organizations face, e.g., "How will we be able to attract and hold the critical talent we need to survive and thrive in the future?"

This sort of question has all sort of ramifications for whether an organization is life-positive: What environment can it design, and create that will support the vitality of its workforce? What forces will be shaping the context of the organization as the future unfolds, determining the behaviors and internal conditions that will define what it means to be life sustaining? The Discovery phase of the process develops an organizationally specific response to this sort of strategic question. Persistent poking at the driving forces affecting the organization yields a structural dynamics model, symbolized in the center of the graphic. For example, we think that the status of women, i.e., their political rights and their social status on a global basis, is a global driver of the future although we are not at all sure how it is going to work out. It's relationship to the position and condition of women is likely to be an important consideration for all organizations. It is another critical uncertainty having a powerful effect on the workforce.

Identifying and analyzing the structural dynamics of its Critical Uncertainties enables an organization to articulate a set of plausible scenarios of the future. The word plausible is very important because many scenarios, e.g., in the science fiction genre can make for great stories but it's hard to see how one might get there from here. And, the idea of a set of scenarios is also significant because planners need to challenge themselves with starkly alternative futures in order to articulate strategic Options, especially those that are robust, i.e., hold promise of being effective regardless of which direction the future actually does take. A strategy matrix, such as the one at left, is one of the key products of the Options phase.

The organizational challenge now is to Apply or Embody the strategies to the entire range of organizational action. If an organization wants to become an employer of choice for a certain demographic of women, for example, all of its activities ought to align organically with that aspiration. We approach the manifestation of strategic choices via fractals, i.e., allowing each component of the organization to deploy the central strategic theme in its own distinctive, subcultural fashion.

Sustaining is the phase of the strategy process in which signs, indicators and warnings are used to calibrate earlier hypotheses, e.g., the expectation that the gap in academic achievement between young men and women which has been developing in the United States will continue and become more of a world wide phenomenon. Sustaining also entails acting in ways that cement, ground and perpetuate the learning orientation that the structural dynamics process is designed to inculcate into the DNA of the organizations that use it.

We're obviously very excited about this work and the prospect that a distillation of our theory and practice may make a contribution to organizational science and to the vitality and spirit of people and their organizations.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Life-sustaining organizations attract and hold creative talent

Art of the Future has made a number of presentations to CoreNet, an international network of corporate real estate professionals who oversee the design and corporate deployment of millions of square feet of owned and leased buildings and land. In a recent webinar, we discussed the way in which the need to attract and retain creative talent could play out in alternative scenarios.

The proposition that organizations face critical uncertainties is one of the key ideas we work with. A critical uncertainty is a driver that is very important to the success of the organization, but whose direction is uncertain. While it is clear that creative talent is critical to the well-being of organizations, it's not certain whether particular skills will be in short supply or whether there will be such a talent glut in the future that organizations will be able to pick and choose among a galaxy of stars. We looked at a range of data that might validate either conclusion.

In many instances, there is an "official" accepted view regarding critical uncertainties: there's either going to be a shortage or a glut or some combination of the two, end of story. Other views tend to be driven under ground, deligitimized. Michael recalls vividly having purchased a Datsun in 1973 shortly before the oil embargo and driving around in his new car listening to the CEO of General Motors declare that "Americans will never buy small cars. We just aren't the sort of people who are willing to jam ourselves into one of those vehicles." This was not a person, nor a company, that wanted to hear from a guy who loved America but just didn't want to own a gas guzzler.

Of course, life doesn't actually turns out the way we'd planned or anticipated. The future may go in one direction, change course, wobble around, bee line the opposite way, oscillate for a year or two, etc.. Life-sustaining organizations explore strategies that will enable them to be nimble in the face of whatever happens. How do organizations position themselves for a scenario where there will be a high demand for creative employees in short supply while at the same time being able to take full advantage of a potential buyer's market for such talent?

The participants in the webinar used this framework for considering the future to share their views on how the need for creative talent would play out in the future and did a little toward developing a set of the scenarios from which strategies could be built. That is, they did some anticipatory thinking about what forces, e.g., the power of women at work and in society more generally, might influence the need to attract and retain creative talent and, therefore, what sort of strategies the organization should adopt in light of those possibilities.

We believe that becoming a life-sustaining organization is a winning strategy regardless of how the future unfolds. While we have a great deal to say on this topic, essentially life-sustaining organizations are committed to their employees thriving and to the well-being of the natural environment. They want their members to feel free to bring their full range of skills and authentic selves to work. Life-sustaining organization recognize that all human systems are part of the larger living system of our planet. Having this orientation toward being a living system goes a long way toward becoming the employer of choice. If there's a talent glut, life-sustaining organizations will benefit from a demonstrated commitment to people and planet; they will attract the best of the best. If those with talent are able to name their terms, they are still much more likely to choose an organization that is used to having people like them around--one that already has a well-established reputation for working with deeply talented people--than one that is just getting used to having high autonomy creatives around for the first time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Too Much Time Away!

We've been hard at work on our book, tentatively entitled Life Sustaining Organizations: A User's Manual, which describes how Structural Dynamics can be applied to the conscious design and maintenance of organizations that affirm the vitality of the workforce, rather than draining life out of people by demanding the fragmentation of skills, character and spirit.

The good news about this entry is that we're making headway; the bad news is that we haven't had a lot of bandwidth for blogging!

To remedy our absence from the web, we're going to try something different and more Twitteresque than what our entries have been to date, i.e., short and, hopefully, more frequent references to items of current interest. We have some concern that the graphic quality of our posts may decline, but we're willing to accept that risk for a while and hope that you will still find some relevance here to your interests.

1. The NYT continues to be one the great information bargains available, as far as we're concerned. People at this institution have spent generations thinking about how to organized huge volumes of data across a wide range of categories and present it in a compelling way to people like us. It is full of useful information virtually every day. For example, one of the lead stories today concerns the way in which MIT uses its students' blog to recruit new applicants by conveying a first hand experience of the school, rather than simply a formal presentation of institutionally vetted data.

In discussing the "blogosphere" at MIT, student Cristen Chinea exclaims: “M.I.T. is the closest you can get to living in the Internet,” and Ms. Chinea reported, “IT IS SO TRUE. Love. It. So. Much.” [Emphasis added] The concept of living in the Internet strikes us as being very important. It seems to be a vivid manifestation of someone who has transcended time and place to take up full-time residency in the cyber world. Of course, this way of being is customary to millions, but, as the article indicates, the fact that so many young people are living in (as contrasted with "on") the Web, is viewed with alarm by institutions used to more rigid boundaries of who's in and who's out.

2. Youth Magnet Cities is a recent piece from the Wall Street Journal that also explores what Creative Class young people want in the way of a home town. Richard Florida, creative class sociologist, (at right) is one of the panelists who developed the metrics that led to the selection of Washington DC as the current top destination city for charged up men, women and others in their teens and twenties. Here's a list of the panelists, all of whom are probably worth knowing more about:

Steven Cochrane, managing director, Moody's, head of the Web site's U.S. regional forecasting service and editor of its monthly Regional Financial Review.

Ross DeVol, director of regional economics, the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica, Calif., nonprofit, and researcher on technology and its impact on regional and national economies.

Richard Florida, author of "Who's Your City" and "The Rise of the Creative Class," and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Rachel Franklin, senior lecturer, public policy, at the University of Maryland; former deputy director of the Association of American Geographers, and author of a 2003 Census Bureau report on migration patterns among young, educated workers.

William Frey, demographer and senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., and a research professor in population studies at the University of Michigan.

David Plane, professor of geography and regional development, University of Arizona, Tucson; a senior editor of the Journal of Regional Science, and researcher on age-related factors in migration.

3. The influence and freedom of women is one of the key drivers of global change to which we pay attention. There is a fairly wide-spread assumption in liberal, Western circles that the political and organizational power of women is growing, and there is a lot of data to support that view. For example, the Financial Times recently published a "definitive ranking of the world's 50 most powerful and successful female chief executives," including power houses like Areva's Anne Lauvergeon, a French woman who is responsible for a workforce of 75,000.

However, as the graphic below indicates, there are many continents where women play an infinitesimal role in private sector power, and only 3 per cent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.

So, it is certainly not inevitable that women will achieve anything like full equality with men in the halls of power. In fact, some international conflict scenarios would result in significant reductions of the gains made by women, e.g., those that involve armed forces dominated by men. A force such as this, which is clearly important but whose exact direction cannot be known is called a "critical uncertainty."

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Future that Hasn't Happened Yet

As the Future Catches You: How Genomics and Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health and Wealth by Juan Enriquez Cabot is one of the books we've been reading recently in our thinking about Life Sustaining Work Environments. Published in early 2001, Enriquez (who drops the Cabot off the dust jacket for some reason) argued that the Millennium was only the beginning point of the "digital-genomics convergence" and the even more complex proteomics revolution. Seen from the perspective of eight years ago, the new life sciences were going to present breakthroughs shortly that would enable millions of us (especially those lucky and smart enough to be in the developed world) with the prospect of living well past 100, as we gain "control directly and deliberately [of] the evolution of our species and that of every other species on the planet." Enriquez says that "if you're thinking about Iraq, if you're thinking about politics, if you're thinking about the stock market, you are missing the single most exciting adventure we've ever been on." Pretty big assertion!

And, furthermore, he could be right. Genetics and the life sciences certainly present a prospect for an existential breakthrough in the human condition. What would it mean to you to know that a very, very slight altercation in your genetic code could enable you to live to be 130? Without serious reflection, the implications seems almost unimaginable. First off, who could afford it?! What about all those other people just being born: will they live to be 300?! Methuselah move over!

However, this is not a note about the genetics revolution. In fact, the point is that this revolution hasn't happened. Enriquez says that "Celera is ground zero" in the "New World" of genetics. Celera is a company founded by Craig Venter, and, according to how one reads the data, was either first or tied for first in mapping the human genome. You could have purchased Celera stock for about $50/share as Enriquez' New World was getting underway in February 2001...and it would be worth about $8.50/share today. There seems to be a degree of growth in life sciences hiring, but the graphic at left doesn't give the impression of the explosion in the field that was being predicted in 2001.

Enriquez presents a lot of potent info to back up his claim that "genetics is a hockey stick," but it turns out that there are a lot of hockey players on the field. Remember global warming, for example. While there's been a degree of controversy about the accuracy of the global warming data, most of the graphics depicting the rise in temperatures worldwide have caused a tremendous amount of concern about the rate of change in that metric and what it means. Global warming is a hockey stick too.

So, which of the two should we be paying the most attention to? Which one is the most pressing? Which one involves the biggest changes? The short answer is both, depending on what's important to your thinking at a particular moment in time.

Wait, it turns out that there are a whole bunch of other hockey sticks that are also worth considering. For example, look at a trend graph showing the aggregate differential in military expenditures over the last twenty years between the US and its nearest competitors. It is estimated that the US spends one third to one half of the world's budget on arms every year. It spends more on arms than the next closest eleven also-rans, $375B in 2004 vs. $60B by China, for example. So, the US has an enormous lead in this category. No one can or will catch up to the US in conventional arms expenditures. That isn't pleasing to everyone, which is one of the drivers of asymmetrical warfare and its attendant behaviors, also known as terrorism.

How about the volume of international trade over time or the flow of capital across markets? Hockey sticks with a past and, probably, a future.

So, at this moment, there are a lot of very potent and prospectively game changing phenomena occurring simultaneously in many different domains of human experience. To the extent that one is wrapped up in a particular field where there is a rapid pace of change, it becomes easy to see the impact of an inflection point in one's own focus of attention.

It is much more challenging (and fun!) from a strategic point of view to acknowledge the presence of multiple inflection points all happening in concert or in contradiction to one another. The playing field for every organization thinking about its future is much more dynamic when seen from this perspective. Virtually anything and everything is possible, and very little is certain.

Mystics like John Michell believe that there was an epoch in human history, before the officially recorded past, where a natural order pervaded human activity. Affirming the "dimensions of paradise," Michell found a similar architecture in a multitude of ancient sites--a geometry for the New Jerusalem--that supported his thesis that there once was a time of cohesiveness regarding what human beings were supposed to do with their lives, i.e., bring about an alchemical merger of stimulative solar and receptive lunar energies on a personal, subjective, intrapsychic level and on the external, organizational and social level. (Michell's study of the Glastonbury Abbey is one of his most famous.) Architecture, social activities and daily personal practice were, according to this legend, all designed to support spiritual attainment and the readiness of Earth to receive divinity. This is a claim that certainly has a lot of implications for the design of life sustaining work environments.

Ours is an amazing era full of both beauty and dross. It is a time of great possibility and horrific anxiety. Perhaps humanity will so lose its balance on the planet as to be thrown off by the centrifugal forces we have set spinning at an ever faster pace. Or, perhaps a beautiful, fractal order will appear to us all, revealing an underlying Michell-like harmony that the most recent story in the headlines can never find. Maybe it's always been like this.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rainforests, Women in the Workforce, and Big Science

A recent study publicized in The Financial Times asserts that "cattle ranching it the single most important cause of the tearing down of rain forests in Brazil." The Greenpeace photo at left captures one image of the rain forest being burned to make way for cattle grazing. I find this deeply upsetting because the rain forests are critical to the Earth's overall ecosystem. What I find encouraging in the information, however, is the fact that, like so many other ecological nightmares, what is happening to the rain forests in Brazil is totally reversible through human choice. Stop eating Big Macs and rib eyes five days a week, and you can help save the rain forests and sustain the planet for future generations. This is not really that difficult to do; it involves changing some habits. Furthermore, the story also highlights the interconnectedness of all elements of the Earth's living system. Everything is vibrating with everything else, amplifying and perpetuating some frequencies while extinguishing others. Seen from that perspective, individual action is part of a very complex musical score.

The graphic at right is taken from a recent Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, which indicates that the tune being played by the economy may not be all sad. As reported by The Financial Times, 30% of employers around the world are finding it very difficult to fill open positions in skilled manual trades, sales, technical work, and engineering, among others. No better case could be made for a focus on designing life sustaining work environments than this study's conclusion that "organizations need to identify the values, character and style that sets them apart and create an emotional connection between employer and employee...that make people love working there and bring them fulfillment."

It should not be too surprising to find that financial services, the industry at the heart of our worldwide recession, is one of the least life sustaining work environments around, especially for women. As reported in The New York Times, research on Harvard College alumni women by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, found that careers in finance, with their 70 hour work weeks, are uniquely difficult for those trying to combine work and family. And, it's not only the long hours that are giving Finance a questionable reputation with women, it's a bottom-line pocket book issue. Harvard grads working in Medicine who took off a year and a half (to have a child, for example) earned 16% less than co-workers who had not done so during the same time period. But, those who earned MBAs and went into Finance suffered a much steeper 41% decline in earnings as compared to peers.

An ironic structural ingredient of this story is that students of employment dynamics hypothesize that many talented women have been lost to the sciences and mathematics in order to pursue high paying careers in Finance, only to be penalized financially for their gender and to find themselves in an industry that continues to be dominated by men in large part because women must step out of work at least temporarily to have children. So, an industry whose primary innovation in recent years has been credit default swaps has benefited from the involvement of talented women who might have made more dramatic social and technological contributions through fields that would have treated them better as the members of a biological class. Hmmm. This seems worth considering not only in terms of individual career choice but also from the perspective of Finance organizations that would like to start doing a better job of supporting women in their workforce.

Another recent study, also reported in The Times, indicate that women are pulling even with men in compensation in the sciences, but are still underrepresented in applicant pools creating "a puzzle that offers an opportunity for further research." Maybe it's because the really bright women under study were thronging to Finance during the years of the analysis?! (Parenthetically, this is the sort of comment that is somewhat maddening to the reader of this
newspaper. Two stories carried within three days of each
other that are obviously related don't get connected by the reporters working for the same institution. No wonder the price of the Times as a company has fallen by something like 90% in the last five years!)

Turns out that some of these science jobs can be absolutely
fantastic! Take the pursuit of fusion in occurring at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore CA. The objective of this mammoth project is to use lasers to create a "tiny star" in which hydrogen atoms will be fused into helium under heat conditions hotter than the temperatures found at the core of an actual sun.

The intent of the project is extraordinarily exciting in that, according to its advocates, it holds the potential of releasing thermonuclear energy safely and allowing radically new types of non-polluting power plants to come into existence. According to NIF's director, Dr. Ed Moses, "if fusion energy works, you'll have a limitless supply of carbon-free energy that's not geopolitically sensitive."
However, it is the scope of the work environment dynamics that is particularly of interest to Art of the Future. First conceived in 1972, the NIF is now a 24/7 facility that has involved 10,000 workers and contractors over the last twelve years to arrive at the point where there will be an initial ignition soon of lasers (They hope!) that will be fired for the next 30 years. To design a work environment that will successfully maintain the continuity of the project seems to be a truly daunting task. For example, right now, the US taxpayer is funding the operation of the project to the tune of $140M/year. What happens if there are snafus that delay the project (further) and Congress starts demanding a quicker payoff? What will the organization's strategy be in that eventuality? How will the project be handed off from Moses to whomever comes next as its Director? What will happen to the NIF's organizational culture in a post-Moses era? How will be effective in recruiting key talent from around the world to work on this project if work visa restrictions continue to be tightened? What sort of requirements will the talented members of this workforce make on the NIF if progress there is slow but rapid in competing energy generation industries?

To achieve its ambitions, the NIF not only has to do more than get the science right; it has to build and maintain a work environment where the scientists will do their best work over a very long period of time filled with many prospective uncertainties. This can happen organically by just bringing talented and dedicated people together and allowing them to evolve; and it can happen consciously by asking that same set of people to be involved with the design of a work environment that will foster their achievements.

These seemingly disparate stories are actually not that far removed from each other: If more women were in the scientific workforce there might well be a more rapid pace of developments that would protect natural habitats, such as those of a rain forest, that are in many ways a womb for life on earth. And, the good news is that there seem to be a number of forces in play that will bring that outcome about.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Recently Noticed News

Like a lot of people, I am a regular reader of The New York Times. In fact, I break out in a rash when I don't get to read it on a daily basis. I love the on-line site which has innumerable features, but I am an abiding fan of the print version as well. I like being able to underline information as I read it and write in the margins of the paper. I clip photos because I find there to be quality of color that occurs when ink meets newsprint to be, occasionally, quite beautiful.

Of course, it is a time consuming occupation, this Times reading, but it is certainly rich in discovery and information. I wanted to share a few items that have captured my attention.

1. Jonathan Ruach's review of Judge Richard Posner's The Failure of Capitalism is deeply sobering. Posner is a federal judge who has written on a range of topics, including the power low-probability, high impact events (e.g., an asteroid hitting the Earth) in Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Unfortunately, these darned low-probability, high impact things keep happening. (Remember Condaleezza Rice' "Who could imagine that someone would crash an airplane into the World Trade Center?!") In the futures business, we call these sorts of possibilities critical uncertainties or wild cards, depending on how incredibly far out, yet still plausible, they seem.

I felt a little sheepish when Rauch, a guest scholar at Brookings, asserted that the reader "knows that story" when reciting the set of interlocking drivers that have created the current Great Recession/Minor League Depression, since I certainly hadn't seen it put together so succinctly. And, just in case you're as shell shocked and uninformed about the systemic picture as me, here it is: "Cheap money and an inrush of foreign capital fueled a lending boom, which poured credit into the housing market. As prices went up, up,up, even risky mortgages seemed safe and everyone piled in, including banks. Financiers relied on securitization and complicated financial instruments to dilute the attendant risk, but the result was to spread that risk through the financial system, making it impossible to locate. When the housing bubble popped, everyone was holding bad debt, but no one was sure how bad or even how much. With banks suddenly looking undercapitalized, lenders stopped lending and started selling assets to raise cash. The faster everyone ran for the exits, the faster asset prices fell, dragging banks' balance sheets down with them. Credit markets seized up, depressing the economy, causing more mortgage defaults and asset-price deflation, further weakening banks, further paralyzing credit, depressing the economy still more...repeat ad nauseam."

Posner's assertion is that this crisis "came about precisely because intelligent businesses and consumers follow market signals." In other words, the capitalist system, which believes in market driven self-regulation doesn't function in that way at all. In fact, the market of "an interrelated system of financial intermediaries is inherently unstable...[it is] a kind of epileptic, subject to unpredictable, strange seizures." Put a bunch of bankers in a low interest rate environment without a lot of regulation and economic depression will be the product. Ouch! It's not about irresponsible people. People made very rational and responsible choices under these conditions resulting in the fact that the overall world and US economies are going to be screwed for at least a couple of years.

Posner presents us with a very troubling dilemma: On the one hand, conditions of easy money and light regulation ought to be just what's needed to promote innovation in a capitalist economy. You should be able to get that without the credit system seizing up, but that's not what happened. And, to make matters worse, there aren't any easy answers: Socialism, too bureaucratic; Communism, death; Fascism, bad history. If liberal capitalism is the "end of history," I sure hope it doesn't have another heart attack anytime soon.

2. Here's a story that didn't come from The Times but is worth knowing about. The Russians Are Coming (to Facebook)! Art of the Future's principals have been using for the last few months with tremendous pleasure and with positive consequences in terms of making new friends and establishing new professional relationships. Facebook is a creative revelation. It is very easy to post material to one's sign, including video, and there are a virtually infinite number of groups of prospective interest.

Facebook is great fun, and it is also a big business. For example, in 2007 Microsoft announced that it had purchased a 1.6% share of Facebook for $240 million, giving Facebook a total implied value of around $15 billion at that time. Today, a Russian firm, Digital Sky Technologies, announced that it is seeking to purchase employee owned shares for between $100-150 million. This development strikes me as noteworthy, not only because it's indicative of the dynamic power of globalization--I mean, seriously, Russia, the supposedly re-emerging autocratic society becoming a stakeholder in Facebook, the sine qua non of open boundaries--but also because Russia has been so dismissed by authorities such as Parang Khanna, whose Second World is one of several books postulating the dismemberment of the Russian Federation. Maybe there's more to Russia than Putin and his natural resources strategy. We hope so.

3. Get ready for either a really, really long weekend or complete servitude and irrelevance as The Singularity approaches. The Singularity is a concept coined by science fiction writer, Vernon Vinge, that asserts that supersmart computers will outstrip human intelligence sometime soon. The Big Bang was the original singularity, as far as I know. There was absolutely nothing and then--poof--there was suddenly something from which everything else has unfolded! So, this singularity business is a very big deal. The acceleration of technical innovation has placed us at "the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth." Some futurists, such as James John Bell, lay out the possibility that, beginning somewhere around 2025, everything that humanity has ever imagined may, in fact, be achievable virtually instantaneously via the advances that occurring in technology. The unique and beautiful film, Waking Life (which lays out something like thirty alternative philosophies reviewed and comprehended in the last minutes of a young man's life) includes a presentation of what this sort of hyper-telescopic evolution might look like, i.e., where something is envisioned and can, therefore, be subject to experimentation and experience immediately.

The Singularity is the epitome of what people mean when they say, "This is the stuff of science fiction." However, there is considerable reason to believe that what never seemed possible previously, e.g., the prospect that we could transcend mortality and never have to "work," in the way that we presently conceive of that process, or that we are inventing technologies that will come to rule us (and not necessarily in a nice way; reference: The Matrix), has to be taken increasingly seriously. Even if the human prospect isn't about to be reset in its entirety, it's completely clear that phenomenal change is afoot in technologically assisted expansion of life expectancy, for example.

The point for Art of the Future is that these sorts of considerations are virtually off the radar screen when it comes to typical strategic planning processes. Very real and indescribably huge forces shaping the future are often met with such a sense of powerlessness that they are not included in an organization's strategic conversations. The more that is true, the more the overall direction and meaning of all of the technological innovation that is occurring will be left to the very few people who do actually think about "Big Issues." Therefore, the perspectives enunciated by elites, the Best and the Brightest of whatever generation, will demarcate the terms of the conversation.Often , that is not a good thing. It means millions of intelligent and concerned people and organizations around the world won't be thinking together about where our technologies are taking us. So, if the Singularity (or any of its near relatives) breaks into reality, the highest probability is that most people will be completely paralyzed in shock, fear and awe by its effects. They'll have never thought about it, let alone have discussed its organizational consequences. This is a recipe for a lot of distressed people and broken, useless organizations.

Art of the Future's mission is to support the evolution of life sustaining work environments that support creativity and the ability of organizations to survive and thrive in many different social-economic contexts. We are not necessarily adherents to the Singularity hypothesis, but we definitely believe that organizations that want to build powerfully compelling work environments need to incorporate logically presented, unconventional views into their strategic analyses to do justice to the full scope of possibilities that are shaping what work will be, how it will be done and where it will occur.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Geopolitics and Structuralism

The US Navy is the key driving force that will determine the destiny of the world over the course of the 21st century. That is the assertion of George Friedman in his current best seller, The Next 100 Years.

A talented structural thinker, Friedman explores the way in which the elements of a situation affect, shape and sometimes even determine the choices we make. His firm, Stratfor, operates within the world of geopolitics, which he describes as: "a method for thinking about the world and forecasting what will happen down the road.

Friedman's point of view ought to be very refreshing to those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about organization and leadership theory. Organizational studies concentrate extensively on the actions of individuals, teams, particular organizations, and, occasionally, industries. Economists talk about an invisible hand, in which the self-interested, short-term activities of people lead to ‘the wealth of nations’ (ala Adam Smith). Here are a few quotes from Friedman explicating his views on Geopolitics:
  • "Geopolitics applies the concept of the invisible hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors. The pursuit of short-term self-interest by nations and by their leaders work result, if not to the wealth of nations, then at least to predictable behavior and, therefore, to the ability to forecast the shape of the future international system."
  • "Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest. As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue their self-interest, if not flawlessly, then at least not randomly…in chess you do not have limitless moves. The better you are at chess, the more clearly you see your options, and the fewer moves there actually are.
  • "For the most part, the act of governance in foreign policy is simply executing the necessary and logical next step. Political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such. Geopolitics does not take the individual leader very seriously, and more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously.
  • "The core of the method I have used in this book has been to look at the constraints placed on individuals and nations, to see how they are generally forced to behave because of these constraints, and then to try to understand the unintended consequences those actions will have
  • "Geopolitics assumes two things...
  1. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also assumes that humans have natural loyalty to the things they were born into, the people and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city, or a nation is natural to people. In our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means that war is ubiquitous.
  2. Second, geopolitics assumes that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by geography, as is the relationship between nations. That includes the physical characteristics of a location and the effect of a place on individuals and communities. Sparta was a landlocked city and Athens was a maritime empire. Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial and very tough. A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both culture and politics."

Organizational interventionists put great stock in micro theories: change individuals or small units and you’ll alter the dynamics of the situation in some overarching fashion. Concentrate on the workings of the organization as an entity. Sometimes this is true. Apple runs a hell of a lot better under Steve Jobs than it does under anyone else. He mobilizes the company's design masters and the customer analysts in a way that no one else has. However, is it not also the case that someone like Jobs do a much better job of bringing the forces shaping the future more generally, including Friedman’s geopolitics, inside the firm than most others do? Most executives and managers treat the big picture as exogenous, something that “greater minds” should pay attention to, at least in their official personae. But great organizational leaders--we call them Anticipatory Leaders--are not afraid of the big picture; in fact, they recognize how important it is to embrace the full range of forces confronting their organizations.

Friedman's analysis begins with “the permanent: the persistence of the human condition, suspended between heaven and hell….[Therefore,] the 21st century will be like all other centuries. There will be wars, there will be poverty, there will be triumphs and defeats. There will be tragedy and good luck. People will go to work, make money, have children, fall in love, and come to hate. The permanent human condition is not cyclical."

In fact, Friedman's analysis assumes that war will be ubiquitous and inevitable. This is where we part company. We believe that humanity not only has the possibility of resolving powerful conflict through some other method besides war, but we feel that it must. We are of the view that human evolution is seeking to transcend warfare. Optimists and people who hold that there is some sort of progress in humanity away from violence have long held this view. In fact, the people who invented the Tarot have a card that is meant to convey this forward motion, The Wheel of Fortune which shows the ears of the red Hermanubis protruding into a new realm of human consciousness. (Unfortunately, the data indicate that the decline in conflicts around the world, which had characterized the 80's and 90's seems to have plateaued at about 30; so, hold the champagne.)

What Friedman's thoughtful, rational analysis does demonstrate is that those of us who long for a world without war must realize that such a condition is not going to inevitably occur. There is no New Age that will bring this about. In fact, the geopolitical deck is stacked against peace and for war. Can we strategically position our organizations, our societies, ourselves in a way that make peace more rather than less possible? The answer is "Yes!" and achieving it entails a lot of clear analysis and good decision making at every level of human life. The nature of the weapons that humanity has developed makes it unacceptable for the anwer to this question to be "No."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life Sustaining Work Environments: A Book in Progress

Anika and Michael are hard at work on their newest publication, a manual devoted to the challenge of creating of work environments that will attract, house, support and retain key talent that organizations can rely upon to lead them forward into whatever future the next twenty years may bring. A life sustaining work environments welcomes the full range of human potential that people can bring to their work knowing that positive human energy promotes economic viability.

We're writing this book because we've both had really excellent working experiences and we've both had and observed many work environments that were deeply unsatisfying. A wide range of factors that contribute to the quality of an organization's life sustaining qualities, including, for example: Are people encouraged to be creative? Do they get to see the effect of the efforts? Does the workplace acknowledge our needs as social animals? Is there a conscious and continuous consideration of the relationship between the organization and the natural environment. Architectural considerations are important, as captured in the compendium of illustrations you can link to on the left.

As we've considered in several previous articles, the quality of the work environment all too frequently falls between the cracks. It's everybody's concern, but usually it's nobody's job. Yet, as we've tried to capture in graphic below, the work environment has powerful strategic implications for all sorts of organizational outcome measures, such as productivity and employee engagement. A lot of people complain about the work environment, but, unlike the weather, it is something that one can actually do a lot about!

Of course, this is an extraordinarily exciting endeavor that is putting us in contact with a great deal of stimulating information, such as this set of videos on IDEO's very innovative workplace or via the brilliant thinking of the scientist and architect, Christopher Alexander, who has written on The Timeless Way of Building in such exquisite terms. (The picture to your right links to an in-depth presentation of Alexander's thinking.)

A particular way of considering alternative futures and articulating strategy is at the heart of this book. We have found that, in general, organizations don't do a very good job of thinking broadly about the environment that they are in and that they, therefore, miss potent driving forces that shape the general political and economic destiny of societies and industries. Not seeing factors that seem completely obvious in hindsight represents a powerful strategic error. The leaders of many organizations and communities spend truckloads of time considering their values and the vision and/or piling through veritable encyclopedias full of spread sheets and charts without having the ability or willingness to look outward at the critical uncertainties that will determine what the profile of the workforce will be and what incentives will appeal to it.

We've developed a three step process for investigating life sustaining work environments through the integration of systems thinking and scenario planning in the service of strategic leadership. We call it Structural Dynamics. The approach is sort of like participatory theater, where the structure of the drama--the movement from pre-production to staging to rehearsal to performance to post-production--is mapped out in some detail, but the actual content of the play itself will be generated by the members of the specific organization working within a particular industry (or set of industries) that is seeking to design a life sustaining work environment. The process is designed to yield discoveries at each step along the way, creating a sort of flow state of new thinking, which as Charlie Keifer and Robin Charbit have discussed, is a constant companion of insight.

We'll be writing more about developments related to our book periodically. So, stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exploring Environmental Futures

Using Scenarios to Improve
Environmental Decision Making

A 90-Minute Experiential Workshop

We have described this workshop previously, and we continue to be very pleased with its reception and utility. We are pleased to announce that the Society for Organizational Learning will be offering this program to members as part of its Conversations with Global Citizens program on December 10th from 3:15 to 5:30PM. Participation may be available to non-members. Chris Doyon (617-300-9515) at the SoL office if you wish to attend.

Overview: There are multiple, conflicting perspectives on the threat posed by the aggregation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the strategic implications of climate dynamics remains a hotly debated topic. Instead of imposing any one point of view, this experiential learning approach uses the thoughts, feelings and impressions of a group of participants to explore the implications of four archetypal scenarios for organizational choices and strategy development. It encourages robust conversations regarding the facts associated with greenhouse gases while legitimating a range of differing opinions. Better strategic decisions emerge when a group engages a controversial subject using a process based on mutual respect. This program has been piloted to positive reviews in 2009 at the University of Hawaii’s Research Center for Futures Studies and the Association for Strategic Planning’s national conference.

Elaboration: Despite an enormous body of scientific evidence emphasizes its dire consequences, global warming remains a virtually invisible, low priority issue to the vast majority of people and organizations in the world. Discussions of global warming and climate change often take place among people who already agree with each other. And, as captured in Jared Diamond's of the environmental debates that are raging in Montana and elsewhere, when people don’t agree about ecological matters, their conversations and their actions quickly polarize. What is needed is a method that gets people to listen to each other, consider possibilities and arrive at decisions together.

We believe that it is not necessary for participants to fully embrace the reality of global warming in order to support cleaner, healthier environments and sustainable practices. No one wants to live in a waste dump. And, there is no disagreement that CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere and that temperatures are rising. What these facts mean and how much they should concern us is, however, a source of intense contention.

This workshop uses the impact of the rising level of atmospheric CO2 as a “critical uncertainty” upon which to focus. It is critical because greenhouse gases have tremendous actual and potential impact. While most people accept as fact the rising level of CO2, the impact is uncertain; there is wide spread divergence over what can be done and when to take action.

Using Art of the Future’s Scenario Game Board, participants position themselves according to their beliefs regarding two dimensions of change:

• The speed with which greenhouse gases will exert an impact on human life -- one person may feel that New York City will be under water in the foreseeable future while another might contend that climate change is a complete hoax.

• The nature of the response to these impacts -- paralyzing fear or engaged action?

Divergent perspectives spark the process; they are woven into alternative scenarios for the group’s consideration.

Our own research indicates that these dimensions (gradual vs. abrupt impact and reactive vs. creative response) are fundamental to understanding the images of the future held by people across a wide-range of cultures. The future will always be different than what we expect, and our expectations are frequently way off the mark. However, learning to see and accept a range of possible future conditions is a powerful step forward in the expansion of thought and resulting action.

The dimensions create a two-by-two matrix that provides the basis for four archetypal scenarios crafted by Jim Dator and his colleagues that can be applied to many critical uncertainties. Briefly stated, these scenarios are:

1. Discipline: Making forward movement through mature, disciplined choices.
2. Status Quo: Preserving current or idealized values and life-styles
3. Transformation: Finding a breakthrough pathway to a dramatically improved set of conditions
4. Collapse: A breakdown of social, economic and/or political systems

The participants in this workshop, based on their position along these dimensions, discover that they are aligned with one of these archetypal scenarios. They are then asked to elaborate the conditions of life in that scenario, exchanging information and insights that everyone finds useful, surprising and provocative.

The workshop concludes with the search for robust and contingent strategies. The group arrives at its own conclusions regarding strategies that would be effective in all scenarios (robust) and those that work in one or several (contingent).

Art of the Future offers versions of this stimulating workshop to any organization, institution or community that would like to explore the range of perspectives held on environmental issues. Please contact us via email by writing or by phone at 617-335-9776.