Monday, 3 February 2014

Square birthday - part three

Some weeks ago I was invited to participate in a strategic planning exercise by and with the International Water Association.  (My good friend Inge Wallage is their new Communications and Engagement Director.)

Unable to forge the two and a half days required last week to participate in corporeal form, as well as travel to and from The Hague (I have been a bit too busy of late to maintain my time forge in full working order) I offered instead to contribute by means of a presentation delivered through the medium of Skype.

There's a first time for everything.

I'd been asked to offer any lessons I might have learned from previous experiences of scenario planning (or horizon scanning, or forecasting, or future thinging, or whatever) and I began (for my own benefit really) by reviewing that previous experience.  The highlights looked like this:

1990   Towards 2020 (reviewing long term social trends)

1993 High speed link (exploring what an economy built from scratch might look like in NW Kent)

1997 Towards the sustainable consumer (a failed attempt at a multi-client study)

2000 What about the Euro? (deliberative exercise with London business decision makers)

2001 Ageing society (mixing demographics and the views of 'tomorrow's older people')

2002 Liveable cities (pan-European work bringing social research into spatial planning)

2003 Low carbon cities (stylised ultra-low carbon scenarios for UK cities)

2005   Lifestyle scenarios (how possible future lifestyles will influence waste volumes and composition)

2009 Food system scenarios (system modelling focusing on agent reactions to different trajectories)

2011   Waste sector scenarios (mixed qual and quant tools to look for key leverage points)

As well as making me feel old (it's nearly 2020 already) I felt that this actually looked like a reasonable (albeit non-aligned, meandering and heterodox) body of work from which to draw some general lessons, so I had a go.  Naturally, I distilled eleven; and I used Italo Calvino for structural inspiration:

1. Clarity
Be as clear as you possibly can about what you are trying to achieve.  In general, scenario planning is not actually about the scenarios; they are simply tools for improving your analysis and your planning.  It is very easy to get lost, or carried away, and to discover in a workshop in a year from now that there are only three of you left and you are all confused.

2. Gentleness
It's not easy.  Be gentle with yourselves, and with your colleagues.  Try not to get frustrated if it seems slow, or worried if it seems messy.

3. Time
It takes time.  It's difficult to say how much.  ("When should you pick the cherries?" I asked my father.  "The day before the birds eat them" he sagely intoned.)  But don't think you can hurry this kind of stuff.

4. Engagement
If you are going to think as a group, you must attend to how you keep everyone interested and engaged.  Easy (and perhaps obvious) to say; but too often I've seen people with important things to offer get left behind through simple lack of forethought by others.

5. Testing
If it goes well, you will emerge with some findings, or some insights or some pictures or whatever.  Make sure you test them on or with someone who has not been involved.  This is important: it may seem very sensible to you and your colleagues, but that's because you've been working on it since that great meeting a couple of years ago and you know all about the insides and the history.  I test things with my mum.  If it makes no sense to her, then there is a high chance it is indeed nonsense. 

6. Vulnerability
Allow yourselves to make mistakes.  Be respectful of others making mistakes.  Don't worry about blind alleys or diversions.  It's all about the process: how do you, as a group, explore and learn so that you can, together, make the world a better place.  If it was easy we'd have done it by now.

7. Depth
Go deep, but no further.  Remember to keep an eye on what you are trying to achieve.  If you can no longer see daylight, you've probably gone too far.

8. Simplicity
"Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." Einstein, apparently.  And he's clearly right.  If you can't explain what you've been up to in all those scenario planning workshops in less than 30 seconds, you're in trouble and so is your scenario planning exercise.

9. Scariness
Big thinking is scary.  Trying to save the world is scary.  Making stupid errors in front of colleagues you're trying to impress is scary.  And so on.  Scenario planning should be scary.  If you're not slightly anxious at a minimum, you're not doing it right.  (You should be having fun, too, of course.)

10. Fitness
This is a Darwinian thing. You may think that the best way to do something is for it to be the best.  The best scenario planning exercise.  But this is not true.  To be effective, it needs to be the fittest, the most well adapted, the one most likely to flourish in this particular environment.  I have seen fabulous initiatives fail not because they are anything less than brilliant, but because the world around them doesn't get it.  And I have seen quite mediocre initiatives achieve remarkable things simply because they were the right shape in the right place at the right time.  So make sure you think very hard about not just what you are trying to achieve, but the operating environment into which your work will be fledged.

11. Influence
In almost all cases a scenario planing exercise will have the intention of influencing one or more people, one or more organisations, one or more institutions.  Think very hard indeed about this, particularly in terms of how you present and represent and describe and explain your work.  Think hard, too, about precisely who you can really influence, and how they line up with the leverage points in the system as a whole.  Tactics may matter as much as strategy.

Or something like that...

Good luck on your mission.  

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