In Learning

Have you ever wondered what education might look like in 50 years?  Could this affect your business?  Do you know what future skills your business might need?  The internet is changing many things, not least education.  How about the political landscape?  Would a collapse of democracy affect you?  Would a supreme leader of Earth change the way you did business?  How would you react if international air travel was banned?  What technology trends out there will change the way consumers interact with your product?  Do you think your products will make any sense in 15 years time?  The world’s population was 2.8 billion in 1954. It is currently 7 billion. In 50 years it has more than doubled. What will happen in the next 50 years?  I wonder what the next world wide web is and how it might support 14 billion connected people?  Is this an opportunity of an increased marketplace, or does this create a problem?  This post from jobsworth really resonated with some things that I’ve been thinking about recently during my travels and client engagements.

One criticism that enterprises sometimes throw at agile methods is that it isn’t strong at dealing with future needs rather preferring to focus on the immediate needs of the here and now. It is true, most agile approaches do look to break big things down into smaller incremental chunks that can be used to build up a working model of reality by focusing on empirical feedback and working solutions, and focusing on the most valuable items that we know about today.  After all, people only really know what they want when they see it and when it feels urgent and real.  But, this doesn’t mean we should neglect the future or not even plan for it.  Some things take a long time to put in place and there is no point waiting until it is upon us to deal with it.  It will be too late.  We know education and capability improvement programmes take a long time to bed down.  We know things that materially change society don’t happen overnight. We also know that some big problems require big solutions.  But not always.

Agility is not about doing Agile. It is about being able to respond to market conditions and forces.  As the famous Wayne Gretzky quote says you need to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. If this is the case we need to be scanning the horizons, taking risks and learning fast.  In sporting terms this would be known as ‘reading the game’.  The best way to respond is to change and opportunity is by being prepared, learning our industries, examining other industries and learning about different walks of life and having time to consider what might become. Oh, and it would be useful to have working practices that allow you to respond and react to changing conditions and priorities.

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. – Wayne Gretzky

Enterprises today are successful based on what they have done in the past and present, and are full of people who have made great careers based on those conditions.  It is hard to challenge the things that made you what you are.  But many business models are being challenged.  Customers are changing.  Technology is changing.  Society is changing.

These enterprises might have people who see potential shifts that open up future challenges and opportunity, but how does the ‘elephant dance’ as a whole? The Scenario Planning process devised in Shell was a way to improve the overall management of one of the biggest companies in the world to better react to future possibilities.  Scenario planning was their way of working through extreme scenarios that are unlikely to ever be 100% true, but have core elements of truth and possibilities that can help managers create better responses to changing and uncertain conditions.  When people are open and conscious of potential changes, they are more likely to react and spot ways to solve future problems.

In his book, Joseph Jaworski explains the key elements of the process:

Instead of relying on forecasts (which are invariably wrong) the Shell Group does its planning for the future through the use of decision scenarios. Scenario planning […] is not about making plans, but is the process whereby management teams change their mental models of the business environment and the world.  In the Shell Group, scenario planning is a trigger to institutional learning.  A manager’s inner model never mirrors reality, he explained – it’s always a construct.  The scenario process is aimed at these perceptions inside the mind of a decision maker.  By presenting other ways of seeing the world, decision scenarios give managers something very precious:  the ability to re-perceive reality, leading to strategic insights beyond the mind’s reach.

Scenario planners […] included experts in economics, sociopolitics, energy, the environment, and technology.  They conduct ongoing conversations with fifty or so top managers in the Shell Group and with a network of remarkable, leading-edge thinkers from around the world in many disciplines: politics, science, education, business, economics, technology, religion, and the arts.  Every three years or so, they synthesize this information into two or more scenarios – stories about how the business might evolve over the coming years and decades.

This process is also highlighted in solving tough problems and was a key enabler to unsticking some of the really hard problems that South Africa once faced.  I wonder what some of our famous brands and traditional businesses that we all know and love today will look like in 50 years time.  It will be interesting to see how software and technology will be dealt with in the future enterprise as more core processes and experiences are enshrined in technology interactions.  I wonder if business leaders and technology leaders will be one and the same thing.  I wonder what capabilities people will need as standard to operate in the business place of the future.  I think an institutional, systemic process that encourages organisational learning that encourages real examination of future trends and marketplace dynamics, plus an approach to delivery that embraces change is a powerful combination to consider.  I wonder who will embrace such approaches and do this well.

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  • Kostya Marchenko

    We are absolutely terrible at predicting future – look at various magazine articles from 90’s, 80’s and for even more fun from 60’s with ideas on how 00’s fashion or technology will look like. Another good source of examples is Nassim Taleb’s book ‘Black Swan’. Yet we still attempt to predict future again and again partly because it’s fun, partly because it gives us false sense of predictability and stability so that we can make plans and think much less about the future and just follow the plan.

    It looks like over time pace of change in society is rapidly increasing as society as a whole learning faster and faster than before. Key part in that process is availability and spread of information and communication technologies – great enablers for rapid learning. And as pace of change is increasing accuracy and sensible timespan of the prediction declines rapidly.

    I believe that there would be a tipping point when pace of change will reach plato or start to decline (hopefully we are self-regulating system that can’t expand or speedup infinitely and our mental capabilities are limited as well).

    Still to survive in that ever-changing world I would invest not in better prediction methods but rather in improving organisation’s ability to maximise it’s learning via rapid prototyping, experimentation and improve it’s adaptability. Darwin’s theory saying that those species survived that were better prepared to adapt (and not those who were better at predicting what would be next) and we see it clearly in business where massive enterprises that existed for decades are collapsing in months and years while other startups are rapidly growing.

    • Philip Black

      I agree that trying to predict accurately what is going to happen is futile ala Black swan. However, you might also look beyond magazines and look at trends predicted by science fiction writers as things that point to the future needs and wants. A lot of these things come true. Maybe not at exactly the predicted time, but broadly there is a lot that becomes reality. These people are open to future possibilities. The point is that we need to be open to the markets dynamics and not closed because of our past successes. Learning is key. Organisational learning is hard and needs deliberate effort. Knowing what we might be looking for helps know what we might want to learn. Of course, that can create confirmation bias, but there are no perfect answers.

      • Sean Blezard

        While predicting the future per se exposes us to the induction trap, exploring what-ifs based on outlier data you are generating or observing through experimental learning, now, feels like a good reflex to have .. Like the old planning is everything, plans are nothing Agile cliche quote. Having a mental model in your org that rigorously questions past trends, tests itself against outliers but doesn’t become paralysed by too many options for action is perhaps better than a model based on “we’ve been doing this for 20 years…” that takes you comfortably into obsolescence?

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