Category: Personal Development


“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

There is sometimes a tendency when thinking about and planning for future activity to want to make solutions more complex than they need to be. Whether this is due to a desire to forecast the ‘right’ direction or because understanding of the present day situation is lacking, or (more cynically) to sell a solution that only ‘you’ can deliver, more often than not the most complex answers to future problems/opportunities are not likely to be those that will work.

I have noticed in my work and teaching that to successfully wrestle with the future is to think through the complexity to identify the simplicity on the other side. If the situation is already complex, adding more complexity will not help. If the situation is complicated, then making it complex will not assist you either. Knowing the difference is a key part of foresight activity. Too often situations that are very complicated are described as complex as a way of ducking responsibility for the hard decisions or ceding of control that may need to occur to move to an outcome. Sometimes, complex situations are only partly appreciated so are considered complicated, and solutions generated which won’t work and then don’t work much to the dismay of those developing them.

complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.

complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

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The field of foresight has always employed instruments to aid our ability to make wise future-focussed decisions. The entrails of the sheep, the crystal ball, the Monte Carlo simulation, the scenario and the agent-based model are all examples of the development of better foresight instruments.

As the numbers  of the foresight Greek chorus grow and their lamentations of the coming of “Peak Oil”, “Peak Debt”, “Peak Calories” and “Peak Water”, to name a few, grow stronger than what instruments can help us? If we are arriving at a new epoch of limits, both climate and resource based, then what do we build as the next foresight instrument?  It is ourselves that has to become the best foresight instrument it can be.

For what else is there than can rationally consider the tragedy of our societies seemingly ‘head-in-the sand’ or ‘duck and hope’ strategies to our many serious challenges we face and not despair?  What else is there that can seemingly stand on the abyss and find hope, humour and motivation? It is just ourselves.

I see them in the classroom and the workshop. Often they are there to gain knowledge and to sharpen their thinking by gaining a critical, and not cynical, edge. They come to play, to practice and to listen to each other. They seek companionship and some measure of legitimation while they are on this difficult journey.  Certainly developing your cognitive, creative and emotional intelligences does improve the foresight instrument.

But the biggest single improvement in the foresight instrument that we can make is to add that feature that energises it – to add to it a battery that seems to not need recharging. What is this source of inspiration and spirit – it is love. For within all of us, often buried a long way down, is that core of who we all are together. It transcends reason and logic because when we get back to that place it is just so clear as to ‘Why’. When that is clear then What and How are much closer to hand.

There is no shortage to ways to make this improvement. I just encourage everyone to just find time to find a practice and a way that works for them. You will be so glad you made the effort and investment and importantly all of us will be so happy as well because we need everyone on this. We need everyone because like Ernest Shackleton on ice – no one can be left behind.

From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?

One of the most easily understood ways of evoking foresight when you are part of a decision-making process is to utter the phrase “what is the worst case scenario?” Almost everyone understands when that phrase is asked then they have to imagine things not working out as they expect/hope and then to decide whether the ‘risk/opportunity’ arising from the decision outweighs that non-preferred future. This is one way to test the Goal Commitment of decision-makers.

The worst case scenario is also used when a person is trapped in a low-hope circumstance and they believe that a recommended course of action will only make things more hopeless. When the worst case is closely examined and does not seem so disastrous then a low hope person can find the self agency to take the course of action and hope can be restored.

The attraction for practitioners is to think that such a commonly understood use of the foresight can be deliberately employed to open up a foresight space in decision-making processes. Further it could be imagined that evoking ‘worst case’ will lead to better, more foresightful decision-making. But will it? I have just read a very useful book on this very topic. Called, not surprisingly, Worst Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein (2007), and it takes a serious look at the strengths and weaknesses in this foresight approach. The book does makes for uncomfortable reading at one level as it clearly concludes that the serious consideration of the ‘worst case’ is a bridge too far for most people. Still within it I did find some hopeful signs.

While there are a few examples of the social capacity to consider the worst case scenario (e.g. CFC gas bans, Y2K, Swine Flu) history, at the present, is replete with examples of policy and leadership trainwrecks in this regard (Hurricane Katrina, global warming, 2009 Victorian bushfires) and few issues that keep some of us awake at night (GM food, nannotech). Sunstein’s hypothesis is that we can’t use worst case scenarios about futures that people don’t have a current referent for. So domestic airline security was not a referent for a worst case scenario on 10 September and it was on September 11. This is quite depressing as it does suggest that we will need to experience something like the worst case before we will be able to think about the worst case. Bugger.

Some more joyful points from Sunstein; he found that the shibboleth of the futures community, the Precautionary Principle (having no evidence that something won’t go wrong is not a basis for doing something anyway), is basically useless in situations of significant complexity because the principle prevents all actions and inactions because whichever way you move you will offend it. After trashing the much-loved Precautionary Principle, Sunstein then found favour in the much-hated ‘future discounting’ approach to the worst case. While futurists hate the idea that the future is less ‘valuable’ than the present, Sunstein found that it is an effective way to consider worst case scenarios. If consequences can be monetarised then decision-makers do have a basis of making preventative and precautionary decisions. Importantly though Sunstein also found that future discounting did not work in worst cases that involve the loss of human life.

I’m very glad to say that Sunstein did find a need for worst cases to consider Intergenerational Neutrality to be fully effective as a decision-making tool. He favours processes that explicitly draw back the “veil of ignorance to the intergenerational question.”  Rather than avoid the question of whether our actions (or inactions) suit us and our choices, he favours worst cases that consider the impact on those not present now who will live in a worst case that they did not choose. He also favours processes that make decision-makers explicitly declare their view that a life today is worth more than a life in the future as part of their cost-benefit approach – what he calls the ‘morally objectionable’ viewpoint.

Ultimately I think that managing worst cases is at the core of our purpose as practitioners. Being better able to navigate such treacherous waters must be one of our core competencies that we can offer to our clients and organisations to assist them.  It appears that technique will only get you so far and that ultimately it is our ability to reason and act morally in considering the worst case that will determine whether we are a help or a hinderance.

As we learn to see the constructed-ness   of what we commonly call ‘reality’ then we begin to glimpse that very few things can be thought as truly enduring. When we put down our preferred ways of seeing our environment and, perhaps for the first time, start seeing things as they really then we start to sense the tremendous uncertainties that are around us. After we sit with this awareness for some time then we being to sense that uncertainty and change open up new fields of opportunity. Eventually we realise that seeing, sensing and sitting are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ conditions – we have to act – somehow.

Ekhart Tolle has a neat way of describing this eventual realisation.

“If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally.” (Power of Now (1999) Chapter 4).

The way Ekhart puts it is quite straightforward – continue, leave, change it. But is straightforward easy?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we really do not want our choices to be this straightforward. I’m suggesting that all those things that we had to bring within our apprehension were originally ‘hidden’ because we did not want to really to bring them into awareness in the first place. What we actually put down were our psychological defences – we took off our protective clothing and so here we are – naked so to speak – with three simple choices – continue, leave or change it. Why would we do this? Why would we not want to know that our choices are clear? Because if our choices are so clear and all we have to do is choose one then to do none of those things means that we are cowards. We would rather run away and hide from having to make a choice.

Which leads me to my thoughts on courage for I believe it takes courage to commit to one of Ekhart’s three choices. What type of courage am I talking about? Is it Dutch courage that we need? Dutch courage is when you find courage through something that suppresses your fear – giving soldiers alcohol so they will choose something (put their life on the line) that they would not choose if they were sober. Does that sound like an ethical goal commitment process to make one of Ekhart’s choices – I don’t think so.

I have found a type of courage that I think is applicable to Ekhart’s choices. It is called 2-o’clock in the morning courage and it is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

“As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind. I mean unprepared courage, that is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgement and decision.”

That I think is why we do what we do. We extol to our clients and ourselves that we want/need to see things as they truly are in order to spot hazard and sense opportunity. We tell ourselves that we want to get to the deepest level, that we wish to make fundamental change in order to create our preferred futures. We push closer and closer to that point in time when we actually realise what our choices are – do we continue with this life, do we leave and create a new life or do we try to make this life better – and then we find out how brave we really are … at 2 o’clock in the morning.