From "Guessing the Future" to "Preparing for it"

by Didier Marlier on Friday September 11th, 2009

We borrowed this slogan from Nick van Heck (one of our partners from Executive Learning Partnership). With an environment changing at an increasing pace, with the complexity increasing by the day, Nick is right in advising to stop spending our resources on trying to guess an illusive future and to encourage us instead to maintain our organization in a permanent state of awareness if not alert.

The Fundação Dom Cabral (Latin America’s leading organizational and leadership development institution, ranked 13th on the Financial Times “Executive Education” worldwide survey) has created a context for a few invited Brazilian CEO’s to work collaboratively on themes which are critical to them. Leadership is their theme of choice for 2009/2010 and “Preparing my organization for the future” has become their tagline.

One of the closest tools we know for preparing an organization for its future is the “Scenario Planning” made famous by Arie de Geeus (unless it is the contrary, scenario planning made de Geeus famous?). I was discussing yesterday, in Amsterdam with Roland Kupers, an executive at Shell and a passionate believer in the method. For Roland, the main merits of Scenario Planning are to:
– provoke people to think out of the box
– think from the future to the present (instead of the usual pitfall if predicting the future based on past experience and being trapped into old paradigms)
– force executives and their organizations to assess the plausibility of certain scenarios and remain attentive to signals from the environment suggesting they may materialize

The downside I see on Scenario Planning however is that, at a point in time in its elaboration process, one is forced to make some choices (probability/impact for example) which amounts to choosing therefore “guessing the Future”.

When running Villars Tourist Office (A Swiss Ski resort, the job being “pro bono”), I tried to go one step closer to “preparing for the future”. Upon my election, the resort was on the edge of bankruptcy. With a solid team (both at Board and Executive level) we turned the situation around in two years. The downside, was that it had created a “dependency on the leaders” (as many of you will recognize). Determined to severe that unhealthy link, I chose to go away for two months in Brazil during our high season: Xmas and Carnival, so that my team would learn to lead itself. However, we decided to prepare it for the challenge. We ran a two days workshop for all employees where we tried to explain a ski resort’s business model and listed all possible events which could positively or negatively affect it. My team was confident that they had all “early warning signals” in hand and went, prepared, towards the best Winter season to that date (a great moment of humility for the leader;). The experiment’s limitations however are that the team was small (12 people) and the horizon short (3 months).

Michael Newman, author of the historical first comment of this blog, recently brought back to the surface a fascinating HBR article (reprint R0511H: “Scanning the periphery” from Day & Schoemaker). In this paper, Day and Schoemaker are one step closer to “Preparing for the future”: They offer a kind of checklist of items at strategic and environment (complexity, volatility, leadership, knowledge management, strategy making, organizational configuration & culture) levels. This is indeed helpful to set a far sighted “peripheral vision”.

However, the key is less into the kind of tool being applied but resides into the faith the leaders of an organization will have in their people. Do they want to create an “intelligent organization” where everyone understands the basics of the business model and is invited to “stay awake” to any signs which may affect it? Think of the huge upward potential for a CEO to know that her organization “breathes and lives” the strategy and that she and her Management Team are not anymore the only ones carrying it on their shoulders… An organization where people have gained strategic clarity (Co-creation of clarity on the intellectual agenda), where exploration, challenge and support are encouraged and lived at all levels (value building behaviours) and where, as a consequence there is a true Passion for creativity, re-invention and/or exceptional execution (emotional agenda) will be exceptionally well prepared for the future, whatever it might look like.

In the spirit of Open Source Leadership and the Generosity that goes with it, please feel free to share with us your experiences and thoughts. Some of us will reflect on this theme this coming week in Brussels and are highly interested with any input you might have.
Have a good week end
Didier

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4 Responses to “From "Guessing the Future" to "Preparing for it"”

  1. Didier,
    fantastic report !Thank you very much to “alight” this candle to me .

    Umberto

    Reply
  2. Thank you Umberto, it was a pleasure. I am at your disposal if you wish to explore more/talk about it: I am your fan and the Ecoresort is my second home in Brazil!!! Abraços

    Reply
  3. Didier,

    Hoje ouvi coisas interessantes durante uma reunião em que se discutia a necessidade de construção de uma base de dados com informações sobre o setor de TI na Bahia. Um empresário, com o objetivo de reforçar a necessidade de investimento nesse objetivo, alegou que essas informações poderia ser utilizadas, por exemplo, para suportar a elaboração de um planejamento estratégico. Um outro saiu com a seguinte argumentação: “sim, concordo que ter uma base de dados do setor é importante, mas isso é jornal de ontem, o que precisamos ter nessa base de dados é o que e em que este setor pretende investir”.
    Bom, isso é só para reiterar que, estratégias, informações, ferramentas (o mesmo empresário comentou que está “lustrando a sua bola de cristal”), não prosperam se não houverem pessoas “vestindo a camisa”.

    Parabéns pelo artigo. Muito oportuno!

    Abraço,

    Zaíra

    Reply
  4. Obrigado Zaïra,
    Tantas vezes achamos que o investimento é o que resolvera o caso: como voce explica, isso não é. Basta ver esse maravilhoso hotel na região norte de Salvador, comprado por um grupo estrangeiro (investimento pesado) mas que falhou ate agora de demostrar que o novo management esta “vestindo a camisa”… Obrigado pelo seu comentario!

    Reply

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