Category: Rowena Morrow


There have been a couple of very interesting articles recently about the relationship between sustainability and resilience. The term sustainability suggests that we are trying to keep the system at a certain level. It flags the existence of an optimal operating point for the (earth) system that we need to moderate/change our behaviour to meet.

the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.”

Sustainability also has connotations of efficiency – the ‘best’ way to do something using the least amount of resources. Continue reading

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On the road

I am out and about at the moment, it is strategic planning season. I am watching the footage from Sandy in the States and reflecting on how much damage water causes, and in this case, fire as well. Both are very difficult to stop once they get going. This type of event is exactly what we can expect to increase over coming years and the economic and human effects will be huge.

I am also hearing the stirrings of anger in the young, there was a documentary on the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria which generated interesting reactions in the young people around me. How could you let this happen? This was the question asked of the adults – not the last time I’m going to hear that, I suspect.

I went and saw Richard Slaughter speak at the launch of his new book ‘To See with Fresh Eyes‘ last week. It is always a pleasure to hear Richard speak and this was no exception. The audience included many ex and current students of the Master of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne, the course that Richard founded in 1999 whilst working at the now defunct Australian Foresight Institute, which was also the home of the AFI Monograph series. Richard very kindly mentioned my editorship of the monograph series, thanks Richard!

The main points from his speech that resonated for me were that we are currently in an emergency, this situation isn’t something that will go away or resolve itself. This bears repeating because if all you consume is popular media, you would be hard pressed to know there was anything much going on. The interaction of resource restriction and climate change is a species altering event. Richard believes that this is time in history during which the decisions we make will be judged by future generations, so he urges us to make wise and foresightful decisions.  We can do this through seeing the construction of reality and understanding our symbolic capacity to change it. We each need to develop the language and depth understanding to perceive what is happening and what might change and how we might do things differently. This development also has to happen in the structure and institutions of society which Richard has written about in previous work.

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I really like this cartoon from Zen Pencils based on a quote from Helen Keller. I think we often are focussed on the things that are ending rather than what could be beginning. There are many people who face the end of their current job due to the economic times we are living in, and for many of us the work that we do is our defining characteristic. Some people in this situation have an ability to pick themselves up and re-focus their efforts into other avenues. Others, like the man in the cartoon, ignore all the opportunities around them and close their eyes to what could be possible because they are unable to conceive of new futures for them, they literally can’t see them. Hope theory would say that people with high hope are able to re-goal and move on to other things and this is one reason why I use it in my work. It is an explanatory framework for why some people take a closed door as a challenge to move into new areas, while others stop and bemoan what has passed. This isn’t to say that those who move on don’t mourn the change – Kubler-Ross’ grief model is another useful explanatory framework.

So what has this got to do with the future? One of the things that can happen when doing foresight work with a group is that people can see closing doors in the future. Being represented is one requirement of becoming engaged in an image of the future – Can I see myself in that future? Do the things I value appear in that future? Many rejections of futures images are a reaction to not being represented. People can’t believe in the image because they do not align to it. Futures images, at their core, are representations of our aspirational values. It might be that the future direction doesn’t suit their values, or they are getting to the end of their career, or they may be feeling like the future being created just doesn’t include them. The reactions to this type of activity can range from disengagement to more active forms of undermining. When a person is resisting a future it is always a good idea to check in with them, sometimes best done in a light-hearted way, whether they are represented in that future.

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Because life is so often incomprehensible, books one can’t quite understand can seem truer and deeper than those one can.

Alain de Botton

Executive summaries over reports – 140 characters over email – texts and facebook posts over letters, these are all examples of the shortening of attention and time spent engaged with one idea. The modern working person does not have the time to spend thinking about an issue or problem for more than a few minutes. Their attention is spread across multiple mediums – computer, phone, face to face – they are busy all the time. In fact, a check of progress is to ask someone – are you busy? A positive response is good, a negative is met with raised eyebrows as if the absence of busyness somehow implies wrongness or failure.

This obsession with being busy, having interesting status updates and quick witted ripostes on social media is counterpoised with rising complexity and the need for leaders to engage with the deeper levels of problems rather than the surface presentation. Many of us skim along the top of things – linking together ideas at a surface level, regardless of their past usage or lineage. It is rare to come across someone who takes the time to think through an issue, we are rewarded for our ability to react quickly and make decisions on the run. When these decisions turn out to be less than optimal, we make more to fill the gap or try to re-direct the ship. We certainly don’t spend time looking at our assumptions, understanding history and identifying the deeper dynamics at work.

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“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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People develop conscious and unconscious images of the future as a matter of course. They do so for themselves, their families, their country and globally. These futures can be probable, preferred and or simply possible. The images of the future held by individuals are interacting with the present, setting the tone for decision-making with the imagined future influencing what directions are currently taken. In this sense, images of the future are essentially the manifestation of our expectation that transformation is possible. Creating a vision, be it as an individual or organisation, taps into the deepest desires of the people involved and allows them to express how they wish the world to be.

Holding clear images of the future is one way fear and trepidation about complexity can be minimised. Individuals can engage with the complexity through development of futures images, trying out different options for operating, which then allows clear decisions to be taken in the present which otherwise may seem fraught with difficulties. The future becomes a playground in which the boundaries of the present loosen and creativity abounds.

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I have been thinking about the individual and the collective over the past few days. The individual is in the ascendant at the moment in many Western countries, and becoming more so in some collectivist cultures. The political discourse in Australia and the US, in particular, focuses on the rights of the individual and the responsibilities we have to bootstrap ourselves in the world. Mitt Romney is quoted saying he can’t and won’t help those who refuse to help themselves, here is Oz, Tony Abbott runs a similar line. The ideas of ‘entitlement‘, ‘making it’, ‘doing for themselves’ etc are pervasive. There is a similar discourse in the everyday world, kids being encouraged to beat the bully, adults exhorted to work hard to build individual emotional maturity and the accepted expectation that we control our reality through our choices as consumers via the market.

The rewards society bestows are on those who have maximized their personal position. Taking one for the team is not rewarded. A ability to work through ego to achieve a personal goal is much more valued than the ability to engage and motivate a group to act. Now part of the problem is our measurement systems as to a large extent in organisations, and increasingly in society, what gets measured gets done and it is very difficult to evaluate the individual’s input in a group. Our reward systems of pay and promotion are reliant on us being able to evaluate an individual’s performance, so we look for leadership rather than evaluating followership.
What if this is the wrong way to go? A thought piece by John Crowley suggests that the future is more likely to be the complete opposite of the present rather than a continuation of it. What if we need to be developing more collective ways of being in the world? Much of the emerging work around wicked problems is group based, there is a recognition in many areas that we will need to work together in the face of descent scenarios, but what if we are actually training ourselves out of the core skills and attributes we will need? For many of us, the requirement to subsume our ego needs to those of a group is extremely difficult. We all want to be individual and stand out from the crowd, but a leader without followers is just someone out for a walk. In all groups, someone has to come last, not everyone can lead and there is always a number of roles that have to be fulfilled in order for successful group achievement, most of which involve following at one time or another. So if our systems, personal preferences and accepted behaviors counter this requirement, where are we left? I think part of our future challenge will be to learn to work effectively in all types of groups, organizations and communities. It will be those people who do not seek to lead who will be followed.

The archetype of the strong, decisive leader who has all the answers is not useful in the face of wicked problems, instead we will be searching for a leader who is comfortable with not knowing, able to work with people and follow when required. Greenleaf’s servant leader idea is along these lines, as is Sarkar’s Sadvipra. This goes further than being able to put up with people whilst working in a team, or just engaging in community when you feel like it, this is fully authentic person to person relationship and that it hard work. The requirements for the role will be an ability to overcome ego, to be present to the moment, knowing your moral stance and being curious and interested in others. How we learn to work together and give to each other without expecting payment is shaping up to be a challenge for the future.

After nearly ten years of foresight practice, I still get a slight sinking feeling in my stomach when someone asks ‘what is foresight?’ This is not because I have lost the fire, or I don’t believe foresight is useful, rather it is an indication that a) the term still has little currency and b) I have to come up with a persuasive sounding explanation. I gave up long ago trying for a ‘one size fits all’ elevator pitch, my most successful interactions have been where I match the message to the receiver.  I have also learned to match my explanation to the situation, I am often asked the question on the side of sports grounds watching kids hitting/kicking/throwing an air filled bladder around early on a weekend morning, so a full blown pitch at civilizational foresight does not seem warranted. The main issue with explaining foresight is that it is a broad church of worldviews, methods and tools. It can be applied to most problems, in most situations and whilst this generalisability is a core strength, it is also a weakness in a world that rewards specialisation.

So, what do I reply?

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“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

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