Many smart and confident people will tell us what is coming at us from the future and sometimes they will be right, however the reality is that a very healthy percentage of the future is unpredictable.
We can foresee and guess many aspects, but one of the future’s most defining characteristics is it’s uncertainty. Looking into the future is akin to looking into a giant fog. If we don’t know what is in there we are rightfully fearful and in the words of the Bene Gesserit Order “Fear is the mind killer”. When we cannot see what is coming, fear and the associated uncertainty serve to do two things:
- They close down our thinking, our vision narrows and we default to approaches that we deem safe because they may have worked in the past.
- They prevent us from pro-actively stepping into the fog and find out what is coming, therefore we can only react when something emerges.
If we stand unsure on the fringe of the fog and fail to do things differently, that which emerges from the fog can be organisation killers. The literature is full of examples of successful organisations that have not engaged with what is coming, and as a result gone to the wall. Therefore approaches need to be routinely applied that allow us to step into the fog and explore without the fear of what might be in there.
Experimentation is an ideal way of feeling our way forward when the future is not clear. Too often, when organisations struggle with the difficult of issues, the default approaches are to either repeat that which has been done in the past, or throw a big consultancy at it. (At least when they fail you can blame them! A classic risk mitigation strategy that costs tax payers untold millions every year)! But I digress …
When organisations approach complex matters in these familiar ways the result is usually sub-optimal, and I use sub-optimal as a more palatable euphemism for that worst of all the “F” words, Failure …
How then can we comfortably step into the fog and start to gain some traction on those unsolved issues that remain thorns in our sides year-in, year-out?
When exploring such issues, I like to use the metaphor of walking into the heavy fog to seek out the insights required. To take a step into a fog however, with almost zero visibility and little foreknowledge of where the next step will land, can be a daunting prospect. Particularly so if we are used to strategically plotting and stepping out predetermined pathways to solve issues under the assumption we have the answers and that we know what will happen at each stage. When perspectives around control, certainty of approach and outcomes are challenged, the fog seems very threatening and decisive action becomes problematic.
More managers now intuitively understand the need to let go and step into the fog, but find it difficult to alter their perspectives around certainty, control, risk and failure which inhibit their capacity to move and act. Some might describe this as the Knowing/Doing Gap, though from experience with management I prefer to describe it as the Knowing/Doing Chasm.
How can we start to design beneficial ways forward when the pathway forward is unclear and we are frozen into inaction (or at best, inappropriate action)?
We start by taking a first step. With that step starts a journey more akin to navigation than a structured and bounded approach aimed at very specific and predetermined outcomes. By starting to experiment we start to; Understand the landscape, See things otherwise missed & Design new pathway(s) forward. Experiments that prove successful provide a form of “proof of concept” and in doing so assist in indicating the location and direction for the path ahead.
Experiments that fail are also beneficial. Just as a success can point us in the right direction, a failure can tell us where we should not be going. Often failing and learning early what you shouldn’t be doing can be just as valuable as succeeding and discovering the best way forward. In designing the way forward both success and failure are key design characteristics. When we design our experiments, we do so on a small scale for specific purpose, so a failure is not only informative but minimises any of the associated risk inherent in automatically defaulting large scale plans. (More detail of this type of experimentation from Cognitive Edge here.)
Surely then, an approach that turns failure into a benefit, minimises risk through low-cost intervention and helps to gain new insights must be an attractive one to managers and be embraced across the board?
Unfortunately not. Those who continue to view the world as being more understandable, explicable and predictable than it actually is will struggle to see the value of approaches where outcomes cannot be predetermined. Even when an experiment yields valuable insight or answers it is viewed by many as being 100% logical in hindsight – which of course it always will be. (One of the reasons we can work back logically from a joke once we receive the punchline, but are unable to see the punchline coming). It’s the experimentation and getting to the insight in the first place, that cannot be logically plotted with foresight.
We experiment to see what will happen when we try something different – the results cannot be foreseen. This is perhaps one of the reasons managers like to rely on evidence, logic and judgement as their primary forms of reasoning, and why experimenting and stepping into the fog is so uncomfortable.
So if the way forward is unclear and you cannot guarantee results with your current approach, start sticking your toes into the water or better still, your heads into the fog.