Does the future really follow from the past?
‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’
Thomas Watson (Chairman of IBM, 1943)
‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home’
Ken Olsen (Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation DEC, 1977)
‘640K of memory ought to be enough’
Bill Gates (1981)
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
Decca Recording Co. on the Beatles, (1962)
Jean Boulton: “If we believe the world is like a machine, then we can believe that plans work, people can be treated like objects, things that are important can be measured, projects can be dealt with independently, change can happen top down, and one method will work everywhere. Historically, in the West, we have been conditioned to believe that predictability and hence control, measurement and structure are ‘scientific’ and hence professional ways of working. Many are predisposed psychologically to prefer certainty and a sense of control”
Nussein Nusbam Taleb (Black Swan): that the most important events, those that changed the course of human history, were unpredicted. We delude ourselves if we believe there is a predictable future.
This it does not mean is that life is random. Essentially, my belief is that strategy is about making choices today that will create options tomorrow. It involves bringing people together to talk and make sense of the present circumstances, anticipating what the future operating environment for the organisation might be like, and setting a clear vision that everyone can understand and communicate. Here are some ideas:
Anticipate: scan the horizon and look for signs of instability and indicators of change
Experiment: scatter a thousand seeds, and build on successes
Improvise: accept uncertainty and instability. Be pro-active and reactive
Subsidiarity: focus on developing shared principles and leave interpretation to local groups
Mainstream: strategy and implementation are one
Paradox: structure and efficiency co-exist with opportunism and effectiveness
The provision of strategic support can come in many forms, from strategy setting meetings, to scenario exercises and simulations, to action research, reports and one-to-one coaching. I work with single organisations, and multi-organisational networks and coalitions.
For FAO’s Emergency Division, I facilitated their first divisional retreat – a five day large group strategic review process for 300 people. I have also facilitated strategic retreats for a number of organisations including: Tufts Univeristy’s Feinstein Famine Centre, the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group, CARE International’s humanitarian group, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Department, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies ICVA, Manchester Town Council’s multi-agency forum for refugee integration, UN-FAO, and UN-OCHA
Scenario exercises, simulations and serious game events
Increasingly organisations are using simulations and games of a serious nature to create a shared experience for staff. This shared experience provides the platform upon which dialogue can occur about strategy, collaboration, effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness. Working in collaboration with a team of designers, I have developed simulations for UN-OCHA field level co-ordinators as part of a training course, for the ICVA network in researching collaborative behaviour, and for the FAO leadership in exploring how to manage a major food chain crisis.
Also for FAO I designed, tested and implemented a simulation-based training programme that brought together Country Representatives, emergency managers and headquarters staff to improve the organisational performance in emergencies.
For the Humanitarian Futures Programme I helped develop a scenario planning methodology that is tailored to humanitarian organisations. This experience has influenced how I address organisational strategy such that scenarios are an integral part of how I work.
Research and advice
Internews is an NGO that strives to improve the quality and coverage of news media in the developing world. Increasingly communications and media are seen as important aspects of humanitarian action. I have been helping Internews with approaching and influencing the humanitarian sector.
For FAO’s Emergency Division TCE I prepared a series of short papers on specific aspects of organisational strategy, emphasising internal changes that would best position the division for future crises of a more turbulent nature. I am also providing one to one coaching to key staff as they complete the thinking of this new strategic orientation.
Pax Warrior is an innovative ‘serious game’ that has the potential to help humanitarian managers practise decision-making, and it stimulates collaborative learning. I helped a group of Toronto-based entrepreneurs understand the staff development needs of the humanitarian sector, and the potential market for their product.