Where could sci-fi take us?

‘The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced.’  For those of us who think organizations are complex it holds that to attempt to design or redesign one will require the use of ‘many different techniques’.

Dave Pollard,   whose quotes these are, says, ‘what I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these [sixteen] attributes’.  He lists them:  methodical, purposeful, visionary, preventive, defensive, attentive, experiential, improvisational, collaborative, holistic, appreciative, open, bottom-up, trusting, humble and redundant, and then explains each of them.

Organization design work often involves ‘complex predicaments’.  Just skimming press reports on GE’s struggles to re-design , or the efforts by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan to improve US health care shows the nature of the challenges and opportunities facing organizations now.

However, much organization design work in established organizations, such as the four mentioned in the previous para, does not recognise complexity, and it is reactive:  a response to current or good-guess future changes in the operating context.  It is often a defensive move – to protect market share, for example – or an offensive move to disarm a competitor.  This design work does not have as the first aim changing the environmental context –  rather the design work is initiated because the context is forcing changes on the organization.

It’s possible that the conventional organsation design approaches will work in these situations:  they tend to be hinged on well-worn models – McKinsey 7 S, Galbraith’s Star, Weisbord’s six box model, or similar – and follow a sequential ‘phased’ approach that takes the organization from current state to the desired new state (with a greater or lesser degree of success).  There are many summaries and toolkits associated with this generally programmatic approach.

But compare the established organizations approach to redesign with the start-ups.  Their aim often is to change the existing operating context.  Think about those early leaders in the sharing economy like  Air B n B which changed the way we think about holiday accommodation.  At their outset they rarely go through a programmatic design process.  Their design emerges, much more in line with Pollard’s sixteen attributes, until they reach a certain size and then they may look to ‘design’ their organization or aspects of it.   Often, they turn to using a traditional approach – although it may be laced with agile or ‘design thinking’.

Suppose organization designers took a less mechanistic view of what organizations – established or start up –  ‘are’.  Suppose we stopped using the language of alignment, levers, chains of command, etc and instead believed that ‘Organizations, like complex systems in nature, are dynamic non-linear systems and the outcomes of their actions are unpredictable’ and further, believed that in these systems ‘each actor is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole and responds only to the information that is available locally’.  Or used Dave Pollard’s sixteen attributes for ongoing design work.  Where would these leave the model/phase or other conventional how to approaches to design?

This question becomes material if we want to move from reactive design work to proactive design work that jumps us from path dependence into the unknown.  By proactive I mean working with questions like:

  • What is an organization? (Is it definable as an entity – where are its boundaries, interdependencies …)
  • How do we manage/design the simultaneously complex, chaotic, complicated and simple aspects of our ‘organization’
  • What in our organization is complex, what complicated, what chaotic, what simple? And why do we need to differentiate?
  • How can we conceive and work with the multiple possible futures for it/us?
  • How can we recognise when our responses to problems are locking us into patterns we find hard to escape from?
  • How do we mitigate path dependence?
  • How can we work creatively with the unknown, the partially known, and the uncertain?
  • Can we design a better future? If so, how?

NOTE:  I’ve adapted these questions from the International Futures Forum – Ready for Anything book and from the Dave Pollard piece mentioned above.

The idea of proactivity means being curious, critical and creative as we consider the future.  It means giving up the ideas of thinking we have control in order to develop skills in working courageously with multiple possibilities and not knowing and not controlling.

I’ve been wondering how to apply this notion of proactive design which was sparked by my reading a science fiction book  Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson  that I’ve written about before.  It seems to me that sci fi writers create a world of possibilities that could help us in our design work.  I started to noodle on this and came across a paper by academic Bernard Burnes and others.  The ‘paper explores how science fiction and fantasy (SFF) can be used to prepare for and shape organizational analysis. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovation is a key purpose of SFF. The speculative nature of the genre makes it a fertile metaphorical ground for testing new management concepts.’ It’s an appealing approach if we are aiming for organization longevity.

Is anyone using sci-fi or other approaches to throw off programmatic reactive design work and pick up emergent proactive design work?  Let me know.

Image: Best Sci Fi books