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In our last blog,we wrote about the questions our clients are asking us about navigating the future as the UK plans to exit the European Union, acknowledging that accepting the uncertainty and asking questions is the right place to start. But we also know that facing uncertainty can be very stressful for organizations and the people within them, because it can be difficult to make decisions and judgments in those conditions. It is a time when we have no playbook to follow; we must rely upon our imaginations and creativity as a source of inspiration to cope with what could happen, which is why working together can produce far better results than going it alone.
It used to be that predicting the future was fairly straightforward for many organizations; by looking at current trends and evaluating the existing landscape, they could make educated guesses about the future, as if the graph would continue in a straight line. However, because of the necessary confidentiality and evolving nature of the Brexit negotiations, there are multiple uncertainties circling, each with its own rich store of conceivable outcomes. Furthermore, it can be difficult to lead in such probabilistic situations: no one wants to hear, “there’s a 68 percent chance we won’t go out of business,” from their boss. No approach will make the challenges of uncertainty go away, but by using collaborative design thinking, scenario planning, and rapidly testing possible hypotheses to explore the challenge in depth, we can help prepare leaders to make more confident strategic decisions when opportunities and or threats from disruption present themselves.
What is Design Thinking with Innovation Arts?
When we work with an executive team on a collaborative design session, we stress the importance of working together as a high-performing team (like those of an emergency room, Everest climbing expeditions or Formula One pit crews) to cope with new information. This relies upon building knowledge of an unfamiliar landscape, exploring the need for collaboration and trust, and seeking out opportunities for innovation, to help anticipate what will be necessary to make the right decisions before the actual need arises. Moreover, we like to work with large groups of 50 or more so we can explore as widely as possible, test and discard many different options before narrowing in on the right solution we can build together to embrace what comes.
Navigating an uncertain future with an approach that is often new to the team can be unsettling. However, the Innovation Arts process is designed to deliver against the objectives we set together with the sponsor team at the start of the process. Your main question might be, “how do we plan for Brexit?” but by working together, we will also uncover a myriad of other relevant questions that will influence your future direction. Using a rapid-iterative, collaborative approach based on the design thinking methodology, we will uncover the forces driving your current organizational approach as well as the likely probable futures to identify how your system will respond. A useful analogy is how the various harmonies of a complex piece of music would sound if one or more different chords are struck.
In a collaborative design session with a client facing Brexit questions, we would encourage them to engage in a scenarios exercise, which would allow them to explore their response to the plausible but unexpected outcomes of the negotiations that might affect their business. In the case of Brexit, this would likely mean understanding which of their structures, frameworks, initiatives and timeframes will be most impacted by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. After working with the organization’s major stakeholders to understand the basic trends and driving forces in the industry, we would use the information to unearth the key uncertainties in the disrupted landscape. We’d then take the driving forces to the extreme: drastically reduced time frames, radical numbers, dramatic actions—for example, is it possible that a process that today takes twelve months could, in the future, be completed within five days? What would enable that to happen? With whom would you have to work and what would need to be in place? Think about it like training at high altitude for the marathon you plan to run at sea level—similarly, working through a scenarios exercise is about maximizing fitness and readiness for the run ahead. The next step in the process is to work backward to close the gap between that imagined future and the way we work today to start readying ourselves for any eventuality.
Working collaboratively on a thorny problem is an ideal way to get a team prepared for a future they can’t quite envision.
The Innovation Arts process allows an executive team to practice making decisions based on available knowledge, and to build and test flexible systems to manage future events. Even if a team doesn’t know what to expect from the changing environment, working together will prepare them to face any challenge, identifying what to have ready to cope with any new situation (technology, cash reserves, new ways of working, effective communication systems, etc.). By practicing as a high performing team in a scenarios exercise with IA, executive teams who do not normally work together can have the chance to work through the tough questions and make the challenging decisions an uncertain future will inspire, making them more fit and ready to cope when the actual need arises.
For any company working in, or doing business with the UK, this is a deeply turbulent time, full of emotion and predictions about what might happen next. But it is also an exciting time, packed with new opportunities waiting to be explored. It will be impossible to guess the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, but with careful planning and forethought, major surprises or unexpected disruptions can be avoided, and that is where we can help.
If you have questions about how your organization can use collaborative design thinking exercises to be better prepared for Brexit and would like to work with our team, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So far, we have only seen immediately visible, short-term effects, such as the fall in the value of the pound, and the diversion of the majority of UK Government time and energy into the legislation required to leave the EU. We all have our own opinions on the likely longer term political and macro-economic repercussions of Brexit, but in fact for our clients the most pressing concerns are closer to home, with the decision likely to influence all elements of their business, from strategy and talent through to finance and regulation.
Of course with the process of exiting the EU being ongoing, largely confidential and subject to a great degree of uncertainty, our clients have more questions than answers right now. But asking the right questions is always an excellent place to start when tackling complex challenges. We would love to write a blog post that provided all the answers, but the truth is that none of us has them today, and at Innovation Arts we certainly don’t have off the peg solutions for you and your organisation. However, we do have some broad responses that may be useful as you consider the risks, opportunities and uncertainty that Brexit presents:
Brexit is a supply side shock and, depending on how policies are managed at a national level, its effects could be felt positively or negatively on individual businesses, nationally and throughout the even more complex global system. One of the reasons our clients feel overwhelmed by this is that it seems impossible to separate the disruptive effects on their organisation with the wider (as yet unknown) effects. But putting focus on the smaller system of your organisation or industry where you are the experts can have major benefits at this stage. The best way to tackle complexity, in our experience, is to break it down into its constituent parts and their interdependencies before attempting to define solutions, so we advise starting there.
When disruption strikes, looking for ways to exploit opportunities should go hand in hand with risk mitigation. Because the implications of Brexit will touch many parts of your organisation, as well as your supply chain, we would suggest the best way to be in a position to strike while the iron is hot when the opportunity arises is to put action plans in place now, and review them regularly as the situation evolves. To ensure your plans are as good as you can get them, and watertight, use collaborative processes both within your organisation and with your trusted extended enterprise.
At a corporate level, you still have access to the specific knowledge and insights of your own organisation that with the right kind of design thinking will enable you to consider possible future scenarios, assess them and plan knowledgeably for them.
Right now there is a lot of speculation on what might happen. There are those that hold out hope that Article 50 could be reversed, others that demand that the Brexit process is seen through no matter if it happens without a deal, and others still who think the negotiation period could be extended through to 2021 or beyond. Is the most likely outcome somewhere in the middle? Perhaps. What we know is that although there is uncertainty, there are only a limited number of broad possible outcomes. But whatever that outcome eventually is, your response to it will still require you to leverage the expertise within your own organisation. By establishing and addressing your fitness to respond now, and by using scenario planning to develop detailed responses to the scenarios you can envisage, your business will be in the best shape to respond when more is known.
Traditional ways of doing this would consume a lot of FTE hours yes, but there are ways to effectively condense this work into short focused bursts, allowing you to accelerate your understanding and strategic planning whilst still staying focused on your day to day business and other initiatives. By bringing together the key stakeholders, leaders and decision-makers from across your business, having them rapidly explore and refine the scenarios of both the future and the transition to it, collaboratively, we can quickly help you define the key imperatives together and settle upon a course of action.
The primary function of scribing is to visually capture a conversation into a clearer and more digestible form. The visual map of a discussion aids those present by providing visual interest and capturing the flow of ideas, so the participants can see what they are saying. It works afterward to help those who weren’t there access the overall themes and shape of the session. Visual capture brings the messaging to life and makes it more approachable and memorable, particularly to those who employ a more “right-brained” way of learning. A mixture of iconography, graphic forms and metaphors instantly bring meaning to the words, and visualizing complex messaging and strategic thinking also helps to align people in a way that simply talking can’t. This is most useful when graphic facilitation is employed to capture a group discussion as it breaks down the barriers of language and terminology, different levels of understanding and engagement. Ultimately, we know through research that people are most susceptible to learning when they are in a “childlike” state, and the playful medium of drawing stimulates this, enabling the audience to access their collective inner child.
A typical day in the life of a scribe goes something like this…
It’s the first day of a three-day conference so it’s an early start. I wear comfortable shoes and do a few stretches to ensure I’ll be ready to spend the whole day on my feet. I have a healthy breakfast and check my emails on the way into work. Among the messages in my inbox is a client request to graphically capture their wedding (this is not the first wedding I have scribed)!
The three-day conference I’m headed to today is located in central London and involves the construction sector, a sector I am familiar with because our team has had a lot of experience across a wide range of disciplines. We have scribed everything from child soldier experiences and talks about music in schools, to economic conferences outlining the latest trends in the industry, business strategy collaborative decision-making events where the content is being created as it is being scribed. Besides large media events such as TED Global or Wired’s annual Innovation Lectures, we have also scribed private and public events ranging from business leadership away days to global banking summits. Ultimately, the nature of the content makes no difference, because no matter what it is being discussed, we are experts in listening, understanding, and presenting the messaging in a way that everyone can understand and be excited by. That is why scribing is such a powerful tool.
There are many different reasons for using graphic facilitation, and many different contexts in which it can be employed. Primarily, scribing is a tool to break down the complexity of strategic conversations. The visual content acts as a record of that moment in time, which could afterward be used as a piece of communications for a larger audience who were not present at the event. Sometimes, the scribing will be developed into an infographic, an annotated illustration (what we call a “rich picture”), animations, storyboards, etc. Our scribing lives on in large murals at the London Transport Museum, and the offices of News UK, and Microsoft.
In preparation for the construction event today, we have spent the past few days speaking with the client about their agenda, speakers and content, and getting a feel for the images and metaphors that will both reflect the intent of the discussions and resonate with the audience. We also research the speakers, their style and presentations so that we are comfortable with the content once the session is underway. Sometimes, a shorter event conference will only allow a brief research period, but however much time we are given is enough, as the real art of scribing comes from listening and making connections between the different discussion points to track the conversation. For clients who want to achieve a specific outcome or output, we will spend a much greater period of time in preparation to ensure we can help them achieve their objectives.
I arrive at the venue around two hours before the session begins to prepare the area where the scribing will take place. This time it’s a large ballroom including a stage and seating for 1,000 people. I will be scribing on my favorite medium, a white board system called MovingWalls, portable, erasable white work walls on wheels, which are easy to transport and link together to make a wall several meters in length. My tool of choice is a whiteboard marker, and I tend to carry an array of different types to ensure I’ve got a good supply for the entire job. The Innovation Arts style is usually monochrome, but it depends on what is right for the session.
We are often asked, “How do we scribe? Is it difficult to listen, capture the information, and then turn it into an illustrated InfoMural with the key messages? How are you always so sharp with the content?” The only way I can explain is that it is a craft you learn and perfect over time. Although I have done a lot of preparation for every scribe I’ve done, just before the presenter starts my mind stills and I listen carefully to her speech. As an avid rock climber, I used to jump off cliffs for fun—to do this successfully, you can’t walk up to the edge of a cliff and over-think it, you need to empty your mind and take the leap. That’s similar to how I approach the start of every scribing job.
Sessions vary, and if it’s a complex one there will be new information delivered every few seconds. It’s an intense experience, and scribes try to simplify the content by drawing from the mental image bank each of us cultivates, working from muscle memory. The strongest image that links to the information will shoot to the front of my mind, and I commit that to the board. It’s difficult to explain how any creative process happens, but experience, creativity and imagination have helped me and our team of scribes build up a vast bank of visuals in our heads, so we know we can draw the right picture, quickly.
The theme of the conference provides me with a nice frame for the InfoMural on which I hang the content, in this case the journey of the event. Metaphors help to clarify the content and add visual interest, and can come from anywhere, from a carefully considered likeness, or a sponsor’s recent safari holiday, to a nearby magazine illustration which, once contemplated, seems wonderfully right for the situation. At the end of the day, with the InfoMural a third of the way completed, I meet up with the client sponsors for a debrief to chat about the outcomes of the day and prepare for the next day’s session. It’s important that the space on the InfoMural is planned in my mind so I leave enough room for all the speakers throughout the event, and for more ideas and connections to emerge as the content develops.
The final task of the day is to take a call from an American client who wants Innovation Arts to come to Atlanta to scribe their large international conference. We talk about the event and their expectations and arrange a Skype call for early next week.
I get home and decompress with a family dinner, and a quick run with the dog. The next day I will do this all over again—what a great job!
This has spurred the knowledge and experience economies in which we now find ourselves where the models of old, such as Maslow’s, do not necessarily reflect the reality in which we live. As we are increasingly and systematically bombarded with information, the need for systemic thinking has never been more apparent.
The information economy is serving to commoditise goods and services at an ever-increasing rate and, conversely, knowledge (‘know-how’) and experiences are the primary sources of value and, it follows therefore, competitive advantage. The ‘Blurred Economy’ where speed, connectivity and intangibles pervade, where the notion of the ‘offer’ supersedes product and service-orientated mindsets and where the notion of the exchange between producer and consumer has taken on far more profound implications than previously understood economics ever explained.
These changes are already upon us. We can already bear testimony to changes in our expectations as consumers as we become increasingly demanding as to the value we get for our money. As consumer expectations change so must the cost of doing business as transparency in the global economy comes to the fore. This is the real tangible effect of the internet revolution: The ramifications in terms of stock market valuations alone have been tremendous.
The notion of an ‘Atomic Corporation’, where the effects of the information economy will cause today’s big corporations to break-up under pressure and ensure the evolution of a new landscape populated by much smaller business entities is not unrealistic. None of the factors above is in itself capable of turning our business world upside down but in combination they are enough to tear apart even the biggest of our giant corporations.
At the heart of it all lies a single phenomenon – an emerging information infrastructure that alters dramatically the costs of co-ordination and dispersion of knowledge.
As Camrass and Farncombe suggest; “a new focus on agility is needed, and as you can’t be big and agile at the same time (the internal cost of movement is too high), fragmentation is looking more and more attractive. And breaking up has never been easier. The availability and breadth of communications channels between organisations is growing exponentially, which is sharply reducing the costs of doing business”.
Regardless of your view of this radical prediction, the truth is that in order to simply survive, an organisation has to be willing and able to mobilise and engage its people and supporting infrastructure when and where customers demand. Many will be dependent upon their ability to recruit and retain the best brains with the best attitudes who are able and willing to meet such extraordinary demand.
How is your organisation responding to this challenge?
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow developed a model known as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs and Objectives’. The assumption behind the model was one of linearity – one cannot progress to the next level until the current needs and objectives had been satisfied. His model is comprised of five orders of needs and objectives that human beings seek in life.
The lowest order need in the model is Physiological. This refers to the promulgation of life and includes, therefore, food, water, shelter and reproduction, also referred to as sex. The next order need is safety, referring to security and protection from danger. Next is the social need: We are social beings and as such need social interaction. Cybernetics also gives us the notion of the purposeful system, which can mean family, community, organisation and so on.
The next order need is esteem. This is concerned with the need for recognition individuals have in themselves and in their behaviours. It implies that humans seek positive experiences (and therefore concurs with a view held by cybernetics: the view that systems do not purposefully seek to impinge upon the desired state of others). The final order is that of self-actualisation. This is the human desire for a sense of purpose.
Critics of this model rightly demonstrate the weakness of the underlying assumption that, as a linear approach, progression is deemed a systematic response to the realization of previous orders. The model also assumes that there is no regression in position. Yet we are all aware, especially in recent years, of how our need to feel safe and secure can frequently be at the forefront of our minds, challenged by our unstable external environment. Also, conversely, how culture can flourish even in wartime situations, or in environments such as refugee camps, where people reach ‘up’ to the arts even when their physiological needs are far from being met. You may well have seen the tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Maslow, where these days even before their physiological needs are met, many modern humans have an even more pressing need – the need for WIFI (cue groaning and rolling of eyes)…!
Maslow’s model may not be quite ‘right’ these days, but it is, I believe, useful, and modern evolutions give it further potential.
We are frequently engaged by clients seeking to understand, address and embed the values of their organisations. One of the tools we might propose early on in our approach to these kinds of values projects is a Barrett survey. Concerned with how the values and cultural traits of an organisation are perceived from within that organisation, Barrett evolved Maslow’s model for his own purposes. In the Barrett model, we find seven levels of consciousness, from survival, relationship and self-esteem – which roughly mirror Maslow’s physiological, safety and social levels – through transformation and up to internal cohesion, making a difference and service. Unlike in Maslow’s model, an individual or organisation does not progress through these levels; rather it is a spread of values across the spectrum that shows a healthy balance.
Whatever models we choose to apply to Complex Adaptive Systems, be they individuals or organisations, they need to be appropriate for the situation. Now we’ve gone back to basics, which still give us a solid foundation, it’s time to look at the challenges the modern business world throws at us.
Maybe that’s you?
This shift away from physical to mental labour is interesting when we think back to the idea from cybernetics that people are a dynamic, purposeful component of the complex system. Perhaps when the majority of workers were concerned with the transformation of physical inputs into a final product, their scope for influence on the system was relatively limited, and the management hierarchy was relatively flat. Now though, we know this is rarely the case. Knowledge workers certainly fit the picture of purposeful components within a purposeful system, operating within a context of responsibility, which may be either management-driven or leadership-driven depending upon the developmental maturity of the organisation.
When we start to investigate the purpose of these ‘components’ in order to understand how they engage with the broader system, it’s useful to explore the different theories of employee motivation.
Douglas McGregor in the 1960s expounded the notion that workers conform to one of two types of categorisation: They are either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X infers a dislike of work and a need for coercion, direction and control to meet the needs of the organisation: A need to be managed. Theory Y implies the opposite: Work can meet their higher psychological needs but to do so, self-direction and self-control must pervade. This is an interesting proposition. Considering we are all model-making, meaning-seeking beings this model immediately forces us to recognise that we may or may not be operating from one of these points of view. It is a potentially useful model as it allows us to consider where we stand vis-à-vis our colleagues and collaborators.
In the 1980s William Ouchi developed another category: Theory Z. This is an extension of the Y point of view, stating that people in this category actively seek responsibility and in light of this, organisations should empower these employees to participate in decision-making activities. (Interestingly, there had been proponents of this since the 1950s born out of disagreement with Taylor’s doctrine of ‘Scientific Management’). The notion of a ‘Self Managing Work Team’ was given a theory-based grounding and has since come to embody all that leaders desire and yet, simultaneously, fear.
The term cybernetics was coined in 1947 for a new discipline that had emerged out of research into the control of physical systems. Norbert Wiener and colleagues chose a name adapted from a Greek word meaning ‘steersman’. This, it was felt, would invoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback and response in systems of all kinds: mechanical and physical systems, but also biological, cognitive and social systems, abstract intelligent processes and language. Wiener’s own simple definition for cybernetics was this: Communication and control in the animal and the machine.
Cybernetics is neither holist nor reductionist. Rather, it takes the philosophical perspective that the whole can be analysed as a set of components within the context of their organisation. It is that organisation which will account for interactions between components, and the way they in turn affect the system.
One of the most fundamental concepts of cybernetics is its approach to equilibrium and change. Cybernetics takes the position that an entity behaves in a way to keep certain conditions as close to a desired state as possible – an equilibrium – and then seeks to understand the actions required to maintain these conditions. This understanding is also fundamental when applied to a system’s effort to effect change by moving towards a goal (or new equilibrium).
These efforts will be composed of, for example, observing or perceiving, organising observations, comparing these organised observations to the desired state (which is a function of memory) and taking corrective measures should the gap between current and desired state be too large. A further role of the memory may also be to record previous corrective measures used and the context in which they were taken.
The ability of the system – be it the human body or a complex enterprise – to observe, make comparisons and decisions and then be in action is the very essence of ‘steersmanship’ and hence is cybernetic.
As you can see, the implications of cybernetics touch on the most philosophical questions of our work: observation, interpretation, meaning and understanding. They touch upon who we are, where we stand in the face of reality, what decisions we make and how we make them.
In business (and in life) we like to think we make decisions based on our knowledge of a situation, yet cybernetics’ epistemological approach – where the observer and the observed are both seen as parts of the same system – suggests that our perspective, and our behaviour, cannot be separated from the system itself. Cybernetics forces us to consider what the limits to our true knowledge are and we understand that our reality may be nothing more than a self-maintained mental construction to help us get along: A mental model. And as we’ve said before, (and will likely say again!) “all models are wrong. Some are useful.”
Cybernetics puts human perspectives and behaviours at the heart of any attempt to model the complex system of an enterprise. Since humans are capable of developing their own goals and desired states the implication is profound: We can define organizations as being purposeful systems of purposeful components – people. Thus by understanding more about the motivations of the people we will come to know what truly controls the system we desire to shape.
Human beings use models all the time. Our observations, reflections and interpretations are all about creating mental models. Words themselves are models – a representation of reality. Just as the word apple is not the apple itself, a word, any word, is a concept we understand through agreement. Models provide a basis for conversation.
Friends at the Sente Corporation have put it this way:
“Depending on how you look at it, anything can be a model. Even reality – from one vantage point – is merely our own electro-chemical processing of narrow bandwidths taken from a sea of information”.
Why do we create models? Good models simplify our complex world, enabling us to communicate and appropriate complex ideas, notions, theories, and so on effectively and efficiently. We make our models to a scale where what they represent becomes understandable on an intuitive level. They enable us to develop the comprehension and insight from which we can begin to experiment. And through this, we learn.
In the context of enterprise, models enable us to examine a situation, analyse it and then draw out plans. Many of the concepts we grapple with in today’s organisations are so complex they are beyond the limits of our intuitive comprehension. Through modelling we attempt to strip away these layers of complexity in order for us to understand the context of the enterprise, the components within it and their relationships to each other and the external eco-system.
They do have their limitations. Models are fundamentally ‘reductionist’ in nature and there’s a balance to be struck between making the model sufficiently abstract that it can be understood intuitively whilst avoiding over-simplification. For example, in breaking processes down to constituent parts, the nature of the whole – the systemic dimension of the organisation – is all too often left neglected. The decomposition omits many of the complex interactions around a process, which is just a logical, linear sequence of activities. To document all such interactions would involve a mammoth effort of analysis, so the trick is to find the right mixture of reductionism and ‘holism’ or ‘systems thinking’. Cybernetics helps our understanding too, and I’ll come back to these points in later posts.
There is one fundamental pitfall to avoid when working with models: we must never forget that all our models – be they process maps, mind maps, spread-sheets, stories, physical or conceptual models – are abstractions. Therefore it is vitally important we remain vigilant in revisiting and revising them regularly, cognisant of the fact that, as George Box put it: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”.
We must learn to be constantly critical and questioning, otherwise the very models we have constructed can be our own downfall as we cling on to them, attached to the comfort of a reality we perceive that may not, in fact, be appropriate. The only way of achieving a shift in our own perspective is through conversation. An intervention in our self-perpetuating thought processes can – if we are open to it – change our view of the world. Or our business.
At Innovation Arts, when we work with clients facing complex issues, we apply a rigorous approach to modelling. Dialogue and iteration are key to our approach, both during the Architecting and Building phases of solution design, but also when the new model is put to Use.