Tag Archive: leadership


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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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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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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One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow. Continue reading

Interior York Minster

The dynamic of trading off the long-term for the short-term appears hard-wired into our systems. Our brains discount the future, our body wants us to eat fats now to save for later and so we enjoy this process far too much. As a society we are unable or deeply unwilling to put off today so we can have tomorrow.  As small children, those who demonstrate the ability to wait for something have higher achievement scores later in life, so the ability to wait does reward us but not until later and it is this later which is the issue.

I recently recorded a keynote for a virtual conference on place based poverty run by UnitingCare which considered the long-term view for people in poverty and what might be needed to bring about change. My core message was that joined up, holistic and long-term planning for services, infrastructure  and service delivery were the key issues. I said this knowing that under current systems, it is very difficult for Governments and their service delivery agencies to deliver. Not for a want of trying, but rather funding and reporting requirements, both in Government and in the service world, actively work against it. However, all of these requirements are not ‘real’ in the sense they can be altered, they are simply constructions of a time and place. Committed people can change these requirements and therefore the results delivered on the front line.

Richard Slaughter in the Biggest Wake up Call in History discusses the mafia in Italy and says that the reason there is garbage piled high in southern Italy is the short amount of the time a crime boss stays at the top of a syndicate results in short-termism of thinking – why provide for the future if you won’t be around to enjoy it? Our brains find it difficult to think about how good something might feel in the future or how bad the consequences of poor behaviour might feel – ask anyone with a hangover.  As the reigns of those at the top get shorter with electoral cycles, CEO roles, share returns all under constrained time frames, the propensity for short-termism will increase, ironically at the same time, as we need to be thinking long-term. This is not a coincidence, it is the nub of the challenge we face. We have to become cathedral builders rather than property developers.

To build a cathedral is to toil for centuries without one generation seeing the outcome, it may their sons/daughters or grandchildren that see the finished product. Why do such a thing as for most of us there has to be individual gain, and in medieval times it was grace – or the points you accrue before you try to get into heaven.

What might be the modern equivalent?

What long-term goal with an individual payoff and a longer-term societal good could we identify?

On core purpose

In a world that seems to require us to be acquisitive and driven to succeed, how do we know what we actually need as opposed to what we might want? I think one answer to this is ‘core purpose’.

Do you know your purpose for action in the world? Think about the idea of being able to express your purpose in 6 words. This idea comes from a friend, Stephen Johnson, who wrote the book ‘What do you do for a living?’ in which he talks about leadership from purpose. Having just been appointed as CEO of a large company, he was showering before his first day of work and it struck him that he didn’t know what he was here to do. He asked his wife (who works a paediatric doctor in a hospital) to express what she did for a living, she replied, ‘I make sick children well’. He found he didn’t have the same clarity of purpose. Do you?

Being able to encapsulate your reason for action in a mere six words is an injunction. Having a core purpose delivers clarity around what we should be doing on a daily or hourly basis. Asking ‘does this fit my purpose’ is an injunction, a pause for reflection and re-orientation. The use of injunctions comes from the wisdom traditions, to give us a reason to stop and reflect upon our actions. Action without reflection and understanding is blind, just as theory without action is meaningless.

My core purpose for the past 3 years has been to help people consciously develop their innate foresight capacity. I can feel that there is another purpose starting to arise for me as time and experiences are accumulated in the service of my purpose. I find this idea interesting, our core purpose can and will change as we change. The challenge is to have enough stillness in our lives to allow core purpose to emerge. I think we also need ritual as part of this process. A way of allowing the future that wishes to emerge through us a voice that we can hear.

Give yourself time and space to listen to your core purpose as it tries to emerge through you. As someone once advised me ‘get out of your own way long enough to hear what is being said to you’.

There is a pair of questions about the future that when people are asked, no matter where in the world and when it was asked, they evoke the same set of answers.

The questions?

  1. Do you think you will have a good future?
  2. Do you think the world will have a good future?

The answers?

  1. Yes
  2. No

It seems a curious pair of answers when you first see them. We have an answer why we see that pair. You see people are confident about “I” futures – the ones that I control by my own actions – while people are less confident about “We” futures – the ones where a bunch of I’s need to act in a way that supports their mutual interest.

Thus we come to one of the most critical goals of doing foresight work – working with groups to help them create shared futures – “We” futures. While it is important that individuals feel hopeful about their own futures it is critical that we also develop hope in our shared futures too. These are the big ones that occupy a lot of our thoughts.

So can we do it? Yes we can (Doesn’t that sound familiar)?

We know how to do this by visiting a theory of moral reasoning – a philosophical approach called The Social Contract. In this theory of moral reasoning we should make decisions as if each and every one of us had contracted to act in our collective interest. Sounds cool doesn’t it?  The core of this theory is contained in a game of logic called The Prisoner’s Dilemma – if we can make the correct call in the game then we can always make moral decisions.

The game goes like this.

“You are in a totalitarian country and you are arrested by the police and charged with a crime you did not commit. You know that there is no group that is going to get you out of this situation; you have to get yourself out. You learn from your captors that someone else, someone called Smith, has also been arrested and is currently being interrogated along with you. Your captors tell you they must have some to charge with the crime. They don’t care who it is, either you or Smith will do. They offer you this deal. If you cooperate and give evidence against Smith and he refuses to cooperate then he goes to jail for 10 years. If Smith cooperates and gives evidence against you while you refuse to cooperate then you get the 10 years. If you both cooperate and give evidence against one another then you will each get 5 years. If you both refuse to cooperate, well they will have to release you both and then go and get another couple of people and start again.”

You don’t know Smith and will never meet Smith. So what do you say to your captor? Your best decision from your “I” perspective is to cooperate – either you get out if Smith doesn’t or you get 5 years if he does. The best outcome for both of you is a “We” future – both refuse and both go free. But here is the clincher – Do you trust Smith? If you act in such a way as to get both of you out, refuse, then Smith is out no matter what he decides. Because you acted in such a way as to expose yourself to hazard then a good future is possible for both of you. If you trust Smith then that is the only decision you can make. But can you trust someone that you have never met?

And that is what goes to the core of “We” futures – building ideas of good futures based on trusting the other party, even if we don’t know them and never will know them. The big car and house, the round the world holidays – If we both take it all then we both are in trouble. However, If I don’t cooperate and I trust you to do the same then we have a good future together – I trust you notwithstanding that you might betray me and take the holiday, car and house anyway. If I act in any other way then I’m consigning myself to a bad future.

But can I trust you …

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?