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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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