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.