#NotEnoughSciFi : Strategy, Scenarios, and “Annihilation”

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

This week’s entry focusses on Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”, the first book of which was adapted into the Netflix movie Annihilation last yearSee previous entries from #NotEnoughSciFi here.

The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions. Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.

– Peter Drucker

After a mysterious event, an unknown force takes over a backwater of the southeastern US coast. Warded from the outside world by a barrier that defies physicists’ understanding, the so-called “Area X” begins to distort the environment in ways which are difficult to study, record, or comprehend.

Still from the Netflix movie

Over a period of years, a government agency tasked with understanding and controlling the zone sends in countless expeditions, to little avail. The latest group, composed entirely of women, also succumbs to the zone’s weird dangers. The sole returning survivor, a taciturn biologist, is compromised by her encounter with Area X – but what has happened to her? And what does it mean for the affected zone – or for life as we know it on Earth?

This is the world of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy” –  Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the first instalment of which was filmed by Netflix, with Natalie Portman in the lead role, last year.

Netflix’s Annihilation is a visually sumptuous adventure which challenges sci-fi’s traditional gender imbalances by following an all-women team of explorers into the mysterious zone. But there are even richer pickings to be found in Vandermeer’s trilogy.

The “Southern Reach” books offer a complex exploration of institutional and personal encounters with unknown or uncontrollable phenomena. Their refusal to offer easy answers, their dissection of office politics and power relations, and their critique of the structures by which we seek to make sense of and control the world, all make them valuable fodder for a special edition of #NotEnoughScifi.

The Social Construction of Mystery

The management guru Peter Drucker argued that the most common source of mistakes in management decisions was the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question. Our challenge – both in real life and in fantastic scenarios like Vandermeer’s – is to find better questions, rather than seeking only to answer those which we already know to ask.

Vandermeer’s books present an environment that resists conventional investigation and analysis. Area X warps its human explorers’ perception and even their nature, so that neither their scientific instruments nor their own experience can be relied on. This understandably throws those explorers and their governing agency into crisis.

Book covers from Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy.

After the first novel’s quest into a science-fictional heart of darkness, the second book in the trilogy, Authority, reframes the narrative. Rather than continuing to follow the protagonist of Annihilation, it takes up the story of a man brought in as caretaker leader of the government agency dealing with the mystery .

This new leader, whose preferred codename “Control” proves deeply ironic, faces a demoralised workforce worn down by years failing to understand the challenge they face. Staff members, loyal to the executive he replaced, are willing to obstruct and undermine his every directive. His superiors prove to be of little help either: they are a far-off group whose directives are cryptic and possibly counterproductive.

Control is a man on his last chance, heir to two generations of secret government operatives, protected from a career-ending mistake in his past by the patronage of his well-connected mother. He is uncertain of both himself and the extent to which his mother’s faction holds sway in a wider organisational power struggle.

If Annihilation takes the reader through a threatening, phantasmagoric natural landscape, Authority does the same for the terrain of workplace social relations – with the added sting that the weird challenges faced by Control have nothing to do with alien mystery, but are entirely caused by humans themselves.

As workers of all ranks know but dislike to admit, covert processes, histories, and informal relations at work have huge impact on our ability to collectively achieve our mission.

Relationships outside of the office, hidden agendas, grudges, jealousies and rivalries, personal loyalties, gossip and conflicting interpretations are all natural parts of human interaction which must be understood, accepted, and incorporated into the endless work of trying to achieve our purpose, whenever people come together to get a job done.

In workshops I’ve run with universities, hospitals, and other institutions, we spend time mapping relationships, identifying interpersonal challenges, and using empathy to consider others’ points of view. Not every relationship yields an “aha” moment under such an approach, and no participant is obliged to bare their heart in such an activity, but the mere act of acknowledging and focussing on relationships and their messy reality can help us to address the covert or informal issues which affect our mission.

13 Days: Reframing a crisis

The threatening nature of Area X, and the possibility of its expanding across more of the Earth’s surface, also raises issues which exist outside of science fiction and fantasy.

Crises are challenges which can damage our ability to learn and respond, or can provoke useful innovations. The threatening aspect of crises, and the sense that they are one-off or exceptional events, carries a great deal of emotional freight.

The organisation theorist Bill Starbuck says that under such conditions, “reactions to the uncertainty…include wishful thinking, substituting prior beliefs for analysis, biasing probability distributions towards certainties, searching for more data, acting cautiously, and playing to audiences.”

In some crises – such as the 1979 nuclear accident on Three Mile Island – this can lead to the mistaken belief that that is unfolding is what has been planned for. Those confronting the crisis reach for familiar responses, and the lessons of the past, to interpret and judge new signals accompanying the crisis in the present.

(This also indicates the limits of experience as a strategic virtue: as Rafael Ramirez reminded me in our discussion about scenario planning last year, the CEO of Lehman Brothers was the most experienced chief executive on Wall Street at the time of the crash which precipitated the global financial crisis).

Ramirez and Wilkinson’s Strategic Reframing tells us:

It is difficult to let go of anchors, and to recognize that what one is facing is entirely unprecedented, but the difficult can be reduced by having imagined versions of these new events beforehand.

This is the benefit of both scenario planning and the speculative approach that #NotEnoughScifi seeks to encourage. In scenario planning, organisations collectively construct plausible scenarios of the future – not expecting to predict or forecast what is to come, but to understand, revise, and usefully expand our sense of what futures might emerge from our current situation. Good scenario planning can help participants to take new perspectives, reframe the situation they face, and make better decisions on this basis.

Ramirez and Wilkinson offer the Cuban Missile Crisis thriller 13 Days as a fictionalised illustration of successful learning and reframing in a crisis. (The crisis really happened, but the film is offered as a condensed dramatic illustration of the reframing process).

Wishing to avert World War III, President John F. Kennedy assigns his brother and attorney-general Bobby to a form of scenario planning regarding the placement of Soviet missiles on Cuba.

Deciding that a blockade of Cuba is better than bombing the missile sites, the planners recognise that this only works if the Soviets also accept the blockade as a proportionate response. However, a blockade is considered an act of war.

The President sees the opportunity to reframe the blockade as an embargo, which is not an act of war, and which might give the Soviets an “out”, de-escalating the impending war scenario. The US government tests this scenario through discussions with the Soviet ambassador, to ensure the reframed scenario is acceptable to both parties. When it does prove plausible for the Kremlin, a secret deal is agreed to remove both Soviet missiles from Cuba and US missiles from Turkey, averting nuclear war.

Where Vandermeer’s government operatives struggle to make sense of the situation they face, the Kennedy administration of 13 Days finds a way to reimagine the choices available to them. Crises can be opportunities for learning, if those contending with them are able to reflect and revise their perspectives to expand the options, rather than acting by rote.

Terroir of the Unknown: Developing a Purposeful Context

The kinds of challenges we’re discussing here depend on judicious research, sensitive and sincere discussion, and deft storytelling skills to articulate the scenarios and options on offer.

In Vandermeer’s novels, the concept of the “terroir” is used by one of the characters to understand the true significance of the radically altered environment in which they are operating.

Terroir is a wine term, which Vandermeer’s government operative explains as follows:

It means the specific characteristics of a place – the geography, geology, and climate that, in concert with the wine’s own genetic propensities, can create a startling, deep, original vintage…Terroir’s direct translation is ‘a sense of place’, and what it means is the sum of the effects of a localized environment, inasmuch as they impact the qualities of a particular product.

Applying this lens to the study of Area X, the agency director Control asks:

“So you…would study everything about the history – natural and human – of that stretch of coast, in addition to all other elements?”

“Exactly”, [replies his subordinate.] “The point of terroir is that no two areas are the same. That no two wines can be exactly the same because no combination of elements can be exactly the same. That certain varietals cannot occur in certain places. But it requires a deep understanding of a region to reach conclusions.”

This approach, emerging from Vandermeer’s fantasised encounter between human authority and a fantastic mystery, resonates with the real-life need to develop a rich but purposeful understanding of the context in which we will make decisions. This includes the idiosyncrasies of our situation, as well as its histories and its conventionally quantifiable factors.

This is not indulgent information gathering for its own sake, the busywork born of not knowing what to do. The focus is always on the goal, just as the terroir only matters insofar as it contributes to the final product of the wine that you will drink. The contextual understanding provides an intellectual resource for better informed generation and selection of options in a critical situation.

Our aim in any shared human endeavour – whether the business of everyday life or the dramatic and unusual conditions faced by Vandermeer’s characters – is to deliver on the mission which brought us together.

Understanding the terroir helps us to choose our way towards the best possible outcome, whether that is a new strategic direction, a response to unprecedented crisis, or an excellent vintage, ready to be savoured.

Read more about Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy at the author’s website.

You can read more #NotEnoughSciFi on this blog, or read my discussion on scenario planning with Rafael Ramirez here.

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