Spotting future trends

Of the ten skills of anticipatory leadership that I mentioned yesterday the I have seen leaders having most difficulty with is in spotting future trends. The difficulty lies not in spotting the trends, but in then acting on what has been spotted.

The work of human systems theorist, Barry Oshry focuses on the way in which the systemic dynamics created by social structure affects the power and efficacy of individuals and groups.

An article by Michael Sales that discusses a case of an R & D middle management group identifying material trends in their context and presenting them to leaders for endorsement and support illustrates the difficulties inherent in getting action agreed and started. It exemplifies Oshry's view that members of what he terms the Top, Bottom, and Middle of an organization have different agendas. Sales (simplifying Oshry's theory) suggests that these different agendas act as barriers and stumbling blocks to acting on good trend information:

At the 'Top' of a system (or any subsystem within it) specialization will emerge as a strategy for managing information overload (e.g., vice presidents for research, operations, information, etc). The consequence of overspecialization is, ultimately, competition over the strategic direction of an organization (or a subsystem) and rivalry over which particular function should have the highest organizational status and receive the lion's share of the available resources. He [Oshry] refers to these 'Top' dynamics as 'turf' issues.

At the 'Bottom' of a system, solidarity and dedifferentiation become preferred strategies for dealing with the inherent vulnerability of being in a system where others make decisions that affect Bottoms without the participation of the Bottoms themselves (e.g., plant closures, changes in procurement policy). Bottoms 'organically' unite in the face of these conditions, and they frequently resent individual members of their group who attempt to differentiate themselves from others.

In the 'Middle' of the system … individual managers are pulled away from each other, physically, mentally and emotionally. Oshry contends that this 'alienation in the middle' results from both (a) living and working within 'silos' (functional, geographic, business line, etc.) and (b) having to deal with issues that 'Tops' and 'Bottoms' in a particular silo have with each other. In other words, members of 'Middle' groups disperse because they are kept at a distance from each other through the dynamics of the system. The more complex, the more bureaucratic and/or the more hierarchical the system(as with BCC), the greater the level of dispersion in the middle management ranks. Dispersed 'Middles' have difficulty integrating. They are 'dis-integrated'.

Oshry proposes 'Middle Integration' as an antidote to these problems. Middle Integration occurs when the managers of various subsystems consciously make an effort to mitigate the effects of organic separation Oshry outlines eight levels of Middle Integration:

(1) No integration: The common condition, i.e., no awareness of systemic forces that pull middles apart and no self-generated information exchange.
(2) Sharing information: The simple transfer of data about different parts of the system.
(3) Working the information: Diagnosing what the system (or its sub-components) needs.
(4) Coordinating responses to issues identified.
(5) Problem solving: Addressing identified needs through self-initiated experiments.
(6) Mutual coaching: Helping each other with issues faced by individual members of the group.
(7) Sharing best practices: Enhancing organizational learning.
(8) Power bloc: Uniting as a Middle team to affect organizational direction and policy.

Compared with the preceding level, each degree of integration requires a higher level of commitment
between Middle group members to their team effort. And, each higher level may entail greater political risk and, therefore, each demands a higher and higher level of encouragement and understanding from the Top of the organization.

Interestingly the way Cisco (see the The World According to Chambers article in the Economist) is currently structuring itself reflects many of the precepts of Middle Integration. It is likely that having the skills and will to design an organization that enables action on trend spotting is a skill as essential as that of trend spotting itself.

The article quoted is available in draft form on the link in the post or as a journal article: Sales, Michael. Futures thinking by middle managers: a neglected necessity. Systems Research & Behavioral Science, Jul/Aug2002, Vol. 19 Issue 4, p367-375, 9p;