Let’s not future proof, part 2 (Prepare instead)

EODF Benelux, invited me to facilitate a session about one of my blogs as they are running, ‘Quarantine-inspiration-sessionsfor their members, saying In the following weeks we’d like to provide you with some inspiration and continue the conversation around the topic of futureproof organisations.’ They’ve invited me because I wrote a blog in December last year called ‘Let’s not future proof’, which struck a chord.

As a start, I’ve re-read my blog to see what I said.  In it I quoted from my book; ‘one of my five rules of thumb for designing is:

Stay alert to the future. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous and well-executed environmental scanning. Organisations should be aware that they may have to do design work at any point, so they should take steps to build or maintain a culture where change, innovation and forward thinking are welcomed.’

This is not ‘future-proofing’.   I extend the discussion about staying alert to the future, saying: ‘No company can accurately predict what the future will bring, but trend analysis, simulations, rapid prototyping, scenario planning, gaming, environmental scanning and a range of other techniques give clues on the context and the competitive environment. Organisations … that take the future seriously are less likely to be blindsided by events than organisations that are rooted in the present [or planning for a future they think they can predict].’  I’ve added the bit in brackets just now.

As you can see, I am fully in favour of taking the future seriously, but not trying to ‘future proof’.  The idea of ‘future proofing’ implies:

1.  A lack of ability to distinguish between complicated and complex.  David Snowden, Director of the Centre for Applied Complexity at The University of Wales and founder of Cognitive Edge is well known in organisation design and development circles for his work on complexity. Hear his TEDx talk here.   As he and others explain, organisations are not now complicated i.e. predictable,  they are complex i.e. unpredictable and they are functioning in broader complex, unpredictable systems.  (Be careful, because aspects of some organisations are complicated e.g. mass producing a component).

2.  A belief that the future can be predicted.  It can’t because we live in complexity.  (Read my blog on Futures and Horizon Scanning and/or read some of Philip Tetlock’s  work).   This is not to say that everything is unpredictable, it isn’t.  A train timetable is often predictable, but sometimes the train doesn’t turn up.  The immediate future is much more predictable than a more distant one.

Mervyn King and John Kay in their new book Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future, talking about the 2007 – 2008 banking crisis, say ‘Because we live in a world of radical uncertainty, in which it is not possible to assess the probability or nature of any future crisis, the assessment of how robust and resilient the banking system should be is a matter of judgement’.  NOTE: There is some academic discussion on the relationship between complexity and radical uncertainty.  I’ve taken a view that radical uncertainty is a property inherent in complexity.

3.  A predisposition, coupled with inertia, to stick with the way we do things, instead of in Margaret Heffernan’s words ‘to free ourselves to explore the contours and landscapes of possibility.’  In her new book, Uncharted, she says, ‘we need to be bolder in our search, more penetrating in our enquiry, more energetic in our quest for discovery.’  She advocates experiments which are ‘what you do when you don’t know what you can do; they’re ideal for complex environments.’

An activity I often mention is Peter Drucker’s planned abandonment one.  In pre covid-19 times I have very rarely seen organisations do this, and nor have I been able to encourage them to do so.  Now we are in covid-19 times I’m seeing an amazing amount of unplanned abandonment. (I’m hoping that the unplanned abandonment will enable critical and reflective planned abandonment to emerge.)

If we take a view that organisations are inherently complex that is,  as Margaret Heffernan  says ‘they are non-linear and fluid, where small effects may produce disproportionate impacts’ and that decisions and choices are being made in conditions of radical uncertainty, then are there ways to help individuals and organisation develop in Mervyn King’s words ‘resilience and robustness of key systems [which are] an important element in coping with radical uncertainty? (Margaret Heffernan also talks about ‘robust’ organisations).

Well – the current covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to consider whether and how we could develop organisational resilience and robustness which will help us meet the emerging future in a state of better preparedness.

In blogs over the last four weeks (first one 16 March) I’ve written on what I am seeing of the impact of the coronavirus.  Each week unfolds new aspects that could feed into methods of developing robustness, resilience and preparedness, rather than attempting to future proof.  This week there are two:

Leadership:  I’ve been in several conversations about leadership in this situation – both national and organisational leadership. London Business School is offering a series of webinars on leading through a pandemic, but the discussions I’ve been in have been less to do with the pandemic and more to do with questions about leadership in complexity and radical uncertainty, recognising that for many organisations their leaders have been selected to handle complicated (more predictable) contexts and are ill equipped to understand, recognise and handle the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous contexts in ways that help develop robust, resilient and prepared organisations.

The adjacent possible:  A second aspect this week that implies robustness, resilience and preparedness is that of ‘the adjacent possible’ (original theory developed by Stuart Kauffman).  Steven Johnson, in the WSJ,  describes it well: ‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.’  In my interpretation this considers where an organisation’s next space could be that will keep it adapting.

I’m seeing a lot of examples of this right now. One is Silent Pool Distillers a small gin distilling company who, using similar ingredients to gin, are now producing hand sanitizers.  Head Distiller, Tom Hutchings, said ‘we saw that there was a lack of hand sanitiser, so we decided to put our equipment, alcohol and botanicals to good use by creating a couple of hundred bottles for locals.  But we’ve now got an additional 5,000 bottles in production. ’ The company is hoping to increase production to supply hospitals, care homes and medical centres. Silent Pool is one of many organisations I’ve read are moving into the adjacent possible – but, how many others could have had they been exploring the possibilities and developing skills and capabilities for the unknown?

To recap:  Aiming to future proof is folly.  Developing preparedness for an unknown future is sensible.  You can do this through a variety of means including: developing leaders comfortable with complexity and radical uncertainty, considering the adjacent possible, undertaking planned abandonment activity, participating in critical thinking in various future focused activities (for examples of some of these look at the IRISS Future Risk and Opportunity Toolkit)

What’s your view on the future proofing?  Can we proof ourself against the future? Is building robustness, resilience and preparedness just a different form of future proofing?  Let me know.

Image: The adjacent possible

3 thoughts on “Let’s not future proof, part 2 (Prepare instead)”

  1. “Aiming to future proof is folly. Developing preparedness for an unknown future is sensible.” “Stay alert to the future.”
    I totally agree. Two thoughts:

    1. The most probable (near-term) future is the same as the present. There are so many low-probability eventualities that one of them will certainly happen – it’s just impossible to predict which one, because it has such a low probability – lower than the probability of things staying the same. That is to say, if you currently have a winning strategy, any change change you make to it based on an uncertain prediction is more likely to be damaging than helpful. So don’t future-proof.

    2. Bruce Schneier, a luminary in the world of computer security, points out that attempts to harden a system against unknown threats are folly. Measures are only worth taking when they are aimed at a known threat. So don’t future-proof until you know exactly what you are protecting yourself from, and preferably have some idea of it’s probability and consequent cost/benefit.

  2. ‘Very few things are predictable. But some things are. It is almost impossible to tell the difference.’ Wait a minute – it’s very easy to tell the difference. This is what science is all about. It’s another instance where gut-feel leads us astray. Covid-19 is a textbook example. The science of epidemiology and exponential growth made it very easy to predict correctly what would happen in the absence of countermeasures (https://www.wired.com/story/the-asian-countries-that-beat-covid-19-have-to-do-it-again/).

    But non-experts put the same credibility on those certainties as they would on an earthquake prediction. Discerning between certain predictions and speculations requires massive self discipline to overrule normally useful intuitions. Normal humans are very bad at this – which is why it is taking so long to get global consensus on climate crisis.

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