Eleven Lessons in Error

A couple of years ago I was asked to do a conference speech on lessons that I'd learned from my thirty-odd years of doing whatever it is I've been doing.  The audience would be a group of sixty or seventy policy and research types involved in scenario-planning; and the focus (according to the invitation) should be on the process of doing scenario-planning, rather than actual findings from scenario-planning.

What struck me as I contemplated the brief was just how much I don't know, and how many things have gone wrong, and that insofar as I've learned anything at all it's come mainly from the things that have gone wrong.

As we know from responses to the question "So, how was your holiday?", things going wrong are normally more entertaining than things going right, so I thought it might be fun to pull out a few thoughts on the basis of some of my screw ups.

Naturally enough there needed to be eleven; and, equally naturally, there needed to be some sort of wry acronym to help it all along. 

The acronym is J-U-S-T-S-A-Y-K-N-O-W, which is terribly funny because it references the 'Just say no' thing that Nancy Reagan did all those years ago to such massively unsuccessful effect, and because the point I really wanted to make in the talk was the importance of always remembering that you don't know, and just how useful it is to stay humble in the face of your own overwhelming ignorance.  Better - I intended saying - to say "I don't know" than to pretend or claim that you do know because you think it will be awkward or embarrassing to admit ignorance in the middle of some terribly important meeting.

Anyway.  Eleven lessons.  Here they are:

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 a year from now that there are only three of you left and you are all confused.

User Testing
If things go 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.

"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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

In almost all cases a scenario planning 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.

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.

Working together
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.


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