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Rawlins Statue

Today in Washington, D.C., there were many people around Lafayette Park and near the White House hoping for a glimpse of the visiting Japanese Prime Minister.  Police were out in force, rerouting traffic every which way given that many streets were closed. Even those walking had to make unusual detours…leading to surprises.

Today one surprise was the discovery of General Rawlins’ Park on the corner of 18th and E streets Northwest.

Rawlins

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Rawlins was a general in the U.S. Civil War, representing the Union forces.  Apparently this statue, installed here in 1874, is one of the few Civil War statues in town that doesn’t involve someone on a horse.  This statue exudes dignity in the midst of traffic.  It is within sight of the Old Executive Office Building, seen in the distance. Shade trees and a small reflecting pool add to the appeal of the spot for a break from walking through the crowds.  According to Wikipedia, the Rawlins monument is considered to be one of the “best portrait statues” in Washington, D.C.

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The Art of Looking Ahead

As the semester draws to a close, students in my course are considering a “super wicked problem,” meaning a highly complex crisis, in the form of a single scenario.  They are working separately in two subgroups; one, on a “before-crisis contingency planning” team; and the other, on a “post-crisis rapid response” team.  In our final class, they will present their findings.

Frankly, the challenges they must wrestle with are simply enormous.  Impossibly enormous, but then again when we look around the world today, such impossibly enormous challenges seem to be the “new normal”.  This scenario-based approach is meant to incorporate much of what we’ve been learning this year about complexity and resilience.  Without this experience, there is a danger we might apply old methods of problem-solving to new classes of challenges.

Illustration:  Pencil and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Such thinking requires what some variously call “the art of looking ahead,” “applied forward reasoning,” contingency planning, or–most recently–“frame innovation.”  It turns out that these skills generally are not ones that business schools or other forms of higher education traditionally emphasize.  Are such skills needed in the workplace today?  As luck would have it, some new books are just out on the subject, and this blog will look at them.

First up is a new book called Anticipate:  The Art of Leading Through Looking Ahead (American Management Association, 2015), by Rob-Jan de Jong, who is a faculty member of Wharton’s “Global Strategic Leadership” executive program.  There are useful tips in this book, so it’s worth giving a flavor of them here.

Early in the book, de Jong notes that “leaders need the ability to look ahead [but] there’s very little understanding of how to develop this competence and improve visionary capacity.”  Many people mistakenly believe it takes too much time, or you’re either born with this capacity or you aren’t.  Summing up wide-ranging research in leadership and business strategy, de Jong notes that sensitivity to context (aka “context sensitivity”), or something leadership expert Warren Benning, calls “adaptive capacity,” is essential for leaders.  Companies that had a “strong sense of sensitivity to their environment” outlasted many which did not, according to work by Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company.

“Short-termism” is  more typical in the business world, and it’s a disease, according to de Jong.  It means valuing short-term gains “above long-term, somewhat foreseeable, consequences,” he writes. Unfortunately, according to McKinsey research five years after the 2008 financial crisis, “little of that learning” about the need to keep a “clear future-oriented perspective” has occurred in many companies it studied.  de Jong concludes:  “Short-termism is the biggest enemy of developing visionary capacity for both the organization and the individual leader.”  So what can be done? de Jong says it starts with “personal vision.”  This matters, he writes, because without vision, there is no hope.

The Elements of Vision include that it is “future-oriented.”  Many people find it difficult to exercise imagination about the future and to promote beliefs that “cannot be backed up by factual experiences, research, and other quantifiable data.”

Yet, a powerful vision moves “beyond the obvious into the unknown,” according to de Jong. It also challenges the status quo and “breaks through existing paradigms.”  de Jong cites IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, as an example; Kamprad built the IKEA empire on the idea that “design furniture should not only be accessible to the happy few.”  A vision also energizes and mobilizes.   According to management and leadership expert, Abraham Zaleznik, whose work de Jong cites, managerial leadership–as of the time he wrote his article in 1977 on the difference been leaders and managers–does “not necessarily ensure imagination, creativity, or ethical behavior in guiding the destinies of corporate enterprises.”  de Jong proceeds to investigate the qualities of “visionary leaders.”

First, it is necessary to enhance one’s ability to “tap the imagination,” and de Jong cites, with examples, the work of world-renown creativity guru and expert on “lateral thinking,” Edward de Bono, in this section.  The needed imagination depends on “perceptual capacity.”  When we are too busy to notice changes in our surroundings, we can be said to be living in the “permanent present,” de Jong writes, which was the state of man in the earliest stage of human evolution.  Fortunately the development of the “frontal lobe” over time enabled more reflective (and strategic) thinking capacities (so the basic equipment is there).

Based on his own extensive research and interviews with hundreds of senior leaders, de Jong has concluded there are two critical developmental dimensions for growing your “visionary capacity.”  They are:

1) Your ability to see things early–those “faint warning signals” often “at the periphery of our attention.”

2) Your ability to “connect the dots” and to create “coherence in the future you face and turn it into a ‘bigger picture’ story”.

de Jong quotes Alan Mulally, a former CEO of Ford:  “The first thing a leader does is to facilitate connections between the organization and the outside world.”  Mullaly, as CEO, took steps to institutionalize the process of “context scanning” through the creation of a weekly Business Plan Review meeting.

The second step of connecting the dots involves more than detecting things that might be changing. It involves connecting and integrating these signs into a larger coherent context of future possibilities. “Trend hoppers” are different from “visionary leaders,” de Jong explains, and “historians” and “followers” are also different in important ways.  There are, moreover some real dangers in “over-reliance on the past,” he writes, in a section that deserves a lot of attention these days.

de Jong notes that making sense of the weak signals in the noise is harder because “the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes of content” and 100,000 words of information in a single day.” He continues:

“Without specific effort, you will only be able to identify events that were early manifestations of change in retrospect.  But that’s usually when it’s too late.”  Therefore, the effort to “connect the dots” must be focused on the implications of changing  realities for one’s business or other professional or life endeavor.

It is necessary to have “context intelligence” to identify and make sense of early signals of change, de Jong writes. The people who do this with the highest levels of adaptive capacity are called “first-class noticers” by leadership and management experts he cites, including Warren Bennis.  Strategic advantage depends on this adaptive capacity.

Developing our ability to notice novelties or things we typically filter out takes effort, even training.  There are many methods for this, and de Jong has created some of his own.  In general, however, he recommends methods for envisioning future facts, and discusses the power of scenario planning, as developed by Pierre Wack and Kees van der Heijden, as central to promoting strategic conversation and awareness. He identifies the psychological obstacles to strategic capacity as including “frame blindness,” or a loss of peripheral vision.  Overconfidence is another culprit.  “Mindlessness” occurs when we “are trapped by categories,” run on “automatic behavior” or operate from a single perspective, according to Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, whose work de Jong cites. Such mindlessness can occur–indeed, might be more likely to occur–when we are fully focused and aware of what we are doing.

Clearly, the art of looking ahead requires some practice but is indispensable in tumultuous times.  Next, this blog will look at another new book: Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking by Design.

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Uncategorized

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Illustration:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In upper Georgetown today, an open-air bazaar was set up alongside Wisconsin Avenue with lots of tents sheltering beautiful things–original Dutch clogs and pillows from everywhere–for sale. The patisserie was packed with people, music playing everywhere. In such a holiday atmosphere on this otherwise ordinary workday afternoon, there was plenty to celebrate–and time to sit high up on Book Hill behind the Georgetown Public Library!  The steeply sloped lawn with the tall buildings of Rosslyn, Virginia in the distant skyline–and bright sun, cool breezes, and pink petals wafting down from a nearby dogwood tree–made for a perfect spot to sketch, even at an angle.

Illustration:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

On the sidewalk below, a tall man in a finely tailored suit glided by, his wife and small son by his side.  Wearing a bowler hat and a thick handlebar mustache, he seemed right out of an earlier century, making a brief appearance in ours: the family group was moving too fast to capture in sketches.  By contrast, these women were not in any apparent hurry, enjoying a spot in a field of dandelions.  For the sketchers, they stayed just long enough to leave an impression.

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Going Straight to Color

Practice sketch going “straight to color,” the last segment of the recent urban sketching course.  In this version of urban sketching, the sketching comes after the watercolor washes.

This is a first attempt to depict the yellow pots on the terrace on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 18 April 2015.

Illustration:  Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing the Dark

Today was the first day of a class in “Faces in Watercolor.”  Again the focus is on the shadows, the darks, and not, at first, the light.  (This was in contrast to a session earlier this year which focused on “Drawing the Light.”)  It is about finding those shades of difference.  Much easier said than done, this process is a powerful demonstration of how much we really do not see.

The class is so full that people and easels are crammed together. Frankly, in this congestion, it’s amazing we can see anything, but it works somehow. Everyone is extremely motivated (as ever, in courses with no “credit”)–and talent shines out in all corners of the room, even though we are focused on shadows.

Demand is quite high apparently, in these digital times, for something that art, and maybe only art, can provide.  In addition, the teacher has an excellent reputation, which probably is the main reason the class is so full!

portrait test 1

Illustration: Pencil and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Of what possible use is this? It probably doesn’t matter. Is art ever really “useful” in a modern sense of valuing what we can measure? What is useful is a can opener when you need it.  Art is valuable for expanding our ability to think by first perceiving more sensitively.  It is hard to quantify the value of this, but it probably would make a difference on a larger stage.

But here with an individual sitting in front of us on a small platform, it is surprisingly hard to get it right–even with all the eyes in the room.  The tests of thinking and seeing are formidable.  Again, we were told:  keep your eyes on the model, not the paper!  Do not let your hand leave the paper.  There is something about seeing and then drawing that requires keeping too much thinking out of it. And, there were as many vastly different images of the model as there were people in the class. No two drawings were alike! Looking forward to the next session!

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Surprise, Uncertainty

Urban Sketching in Richmond, VA

VMFA Richmond

Image: On the lawn behind the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia

Yesterday a group of us spent pleasant hours sketching on the exquisitely beautiful lawn behind the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia–as part of the “Urban Sketchers – Richmond” course.

It was clear at the start of the course that most of us have much to learn about “loose” drawing.  That’s why we are here, after all. While each sketcher develops his or her own style–and there are few hard-and-fast rules–in general urban sketching involves lots of squiggly lines depicting buildings, trees, and people followed by applications of ink and possibly watercolor.  This training is particularly good for appreciating differences in “tone” or shades, to the point that the distinctions can be made with no more than a pen or pencil.  By the end of the first day, it was clear we were learning a lot from this course.

Earlier today we were on Monument Avenue which, as its name suggests, has many monuments, especially at traffic circles. As cars zipped by in both directions, some of us sketchers chose to sit under the shade of beautiful trees in the ample (at least 30 foot-wide) median area next to one such traffic circle. Other sketchers were scattered about in shady spots along the sidewalk to one side of the avenue.  All around us were stately mansions, no two alike and each with all sorts of architectural flair.  Urban sketching, while it certainly can be done solo, is the type of activity that benefits from having company.  Fortunately, there are urban sketcher groups all over the world.

Monument back 1

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The weather’s been great and so are the restaurants! Sketchers have come in from far afield but some, it turns out, live practically next door back home. Architects are part of our sketching group, and know the professional lingo for–and can certainly draw!!–the architectural details we’re seeing.

Monument Front 2

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Now that we’re all heading back home, hopefully, loose, squiggly drawings–combining ink and watercolor–will be ready for this blog before too long!  (The teacher’s work is much, much better–which is why his book and his courses are so popular with urban sketchers.) These sketches from the weekend have sketchers sketching in them– live action images of urban sketchers at work!

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Oyster Heartbeats at the World Bank

Yesterday an international audience of development, media, business, NGO, and technology experts attending a session of the 2015 Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund listened to an oyster’s heart beating.  It was a surprising session in many ways, and relevant to this blog’s focus.

Illustration:  Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The session was “Big Data for a More Resilient World,” (video coverage here) where one of the keynote speakers, Ros Harvey, Chief Strategy Advisor of the Knowledge Economy Institute, described how the “Internet of Things” enables oyster farmers in Tasmania to integrate data about the heartbeats and other biorhythms of oysters to weather and water temperature data. Harvey’s presentation, as well as those of other speakers–from Intel, Google, the World Economic Forum, Caribou Digital as well as the author of Resilience-Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli–all emphasized the need for those grappling with so-called “big data” to find ways to put that data to use by the people generating it.

One take-away, definitely, was a sense of the embryonic nature of this topic for people, even specialists (if there are any yet) in “big data,” in all industries. A strong dose of humility about mankind’s collective readiness for this world–surprisingly (and certainly refreshingly)–was evident throughout the session, in this attendee’s view. Presentations and comments toggled frequently between the opportunities and dangers involved.  All speakers emphasized the need to move beyond “data” to focusing on “information,” complex systems and business models, thus tying the subject to the topic of resilience, a topic explored earlier on this blog.  Hence, the post about this event, with regard to some of the most thought-provoking insights from the event’s speakers.

zolli 2

Image credit: Photo of Andrew Zolli’s presentation given at the World Bank on Big Data and The Future of Resilience, 15 April 2015

The organizers noted that Big Data is one of the most important topics in the development world today but more than half of development experts think their sector is not prepared to use these possibilities.  Zolli presented a slide showing the “grand synthesis” of the elements of Big Data (a photo of which taken at the event is provided here).

Zolli, the author who has recently joined Planet Labs (where, he noted, one of the first employees of the companies was an “artist-in-residence”), noted that “we live in this world of super wicked problems, entangled, complicated..”  How people can persist, recover, and thrive in this world is “our collective resilience challenge.”  The challenge is that change is happening all around us and we can’t see it, he said.  Zolli demonstrated our inability to see this change with a short visual game he played with the audience.

In a world “dominated by the giant hairball” (of complexity), data has a role to play in helping us to be resilient. But what’s important, he says, is that we want to move from the “realm of big data” to the “realm of big indicators.” The Elements of Resilience–each of which is interconnected with the others–presented by Zolli include:

Building Regenerative Capacity

Sensing Emerging Risks

Responding to Disruption

Learning and Transformation

To move to the “realm of big indicators,” Zolli emphasized that “entirely new social architectures” need to be built and that we “need to reengineer relationships as much as we have to reengineer our institutions.” Some of the examples he cited of this at work, in addition to Planet Labs, were other geospatial providers, such as Digital Global and Zooniverse, which he described as “sophisticated crowdsourcing platforms”.  These are using citizen science for disaster response, such as Planet Labs’ work before and after the Tacloban disaster in the Philippines.

Wicked problems, said Zolli, “resist mere cleverness.”  Big Data is not simply “push-the-button.” It is necessary to drag unconventional players into the effort, into “adhocracies.”  Only in this way, might wicked problems “yield to mass cleverness.”

Illustration:  Pencil and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Harvey was next up, with a short video of the oyster farmers at work in Tasmania. She said:  that big data is not only about connecting people, processes, and things but also animals.   Being able to measure the oysters’ heart rates and integrate that data with weather and water conditions, for instance, epitomized the potential of the “Internet of Things,” she said. The challenge is “how do we ‘architect’ technology so the benefits accrue to the many?”  How can we create public good with private effort?  According to Harvey, “It is the new business models that will drive the disruption from the technology.”   Working together from a common data source creates new value, but there is a need to design systems based on 3 principles, known in shorthand as “SOS:”

Sustainable

Open Innovation

Scalable

“We need to understand that much of the world’s data is in the private sector” but “open innovation” requires that many people work on the problems.  Also the efforts must be sustainable.  They should not depend on funding that “comes and goes.” The Knowledge Economy Institute where Harvey works  focuses on such ways to solve complex problems through collaboration and innovation.

Nigel Snoad from Google, was next and said his work is focused on how to make critical information more accessible in times of crisis.  Snoad noted that the unexpected happens when you give people an “open tool” and “open APIs” are “where we’re going.” He cited Google Flu Trends as an example, but emphasized the Big Data is not a silver bullet.  This is because Big Data comes from “very complex systems.”  It is therefore necessary to “understand the systems” behind Big Data.

The moderated panel closing the session featured the founder of Caribou Digital, Chris Locke; Associate Director of the World Economic Forum’s Telecommunications Industry William Hoffman; and Senior Principal Engineer of the Strategy Group at Intel, Tony Salvador.  Key highlights among their comments included:

  • The poor don’t need more surveillance;
  • We need to get data on things that the people on the ground actually care about.
  • It’s not a technology problem; it’s a business model problem.
  • These technologies have ‘interpretive flexibility’ that can be used to concentrate power.
  • We are just beginning to understand this.  Now we understand that it’s about complex systems.
  • We need to talk about “information” and understand that it is a social construct.
  • There is a growing recognition of public-private partnerships.
  • The potential is there but it’s about Governance. This is in the next set of ‘grand challenges’.
  • We need to examine some of the fundamentals that underline the systems we have today.
  • What is the context of production [of Big Data] and what is the context of analysis once we have that data?
  • Sometimes we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
  • How can we unlock that data and make it valuable to the people it’s coming from?
  • We need to listen. We don’t want to go down the path of reinventing our own assumptions.
  • Big data is potentially big power…These [business] models need to be liberated from, and [sustained?] above, the level of individual institutions.
  • We will see models emerge that will be surprising.
  • We need to follow up with social encouragement and deep engagements.
  • APIs that speak up out of the platforms
  • Data can have value and merit right where it’s being collected
  • Due process is an important topic. Things will go wrong. What will the most vulnerable do when things go wrong?

All in all, a rich hour-and-a-half session at the World Bank Headquarters yesterday, and a contribution to the state of understanding on this topic which affects everyone, even oysters.

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