Bringing a ladder to a Zoom call: Keynote to #ELGL20

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “new normal”, but if there is one, then for me it involves a lot of Zoom calls, which means mostly seeing people’s heads and shoulders in a cropped little screen.

For my ELGL20 keynote to local government professionals, I grabbed a stepladder to try and find a different perspective, even in a world constrained by the limits of the laptop lens.

My ladder was a prop to remind people why we do foresight work. Sometimes, we think we know what the future holds and we take action in the present, just as confident as someone stepping onto the first rung of a ladder.

But that ladder comprises all the assumptions we are relying on about what the future holds, and what part we’ll play in it.

As Peter Scoblic and Philip Tetlock put it in an article for Foreign Affairs,

Every policy is a prediction. Tax cuts will boost the economy. Sanctions will slow Iran’s nuclear program. Travel bans will limit the spread of COVID-19. These claims all posit a causal relationship between means and ends. Regardless of party, ideology, or motive, no policymaker wants his or her recommended course of action to produce unanticipated consequences. This makes every policymaker a forecaster.

Scoblic & Tetlock, “A Better Crystal Ball”, Foreign Affairs

We might start climbing that ladder and then realise we need to step left, or right. We might find that the next rung is missing. We might have set off on our ascent quite happily, only to find that circumstances at the top have changed and it is really difficult for us to climb back down. We may even find we have to awkwardly perch half-way up the ladder (I ended up using mine as a chair while I spoke to the ELGL crowd).

Scenarios and other foresight techniques can help us examine the assumptions we are making about the future before we take that first step.

The ladder was also something of a gambit on my part. I hadn’t planned to include it as part of the keynote, but we were using a videoconferencing platform which made it difficult for the speaker to know how the audience were responding. Our host compared it to “speaking on a lit stage where you know the audience is out there, but it’s hard to see their faces”.

Around the halfway point of my session, I wasn’t confident that my message was getting across and I wanted to be sure to drive the point home. I dashed out of the study and fetched my stepladder from behind the kitchen door. Often the liveliest and most memorable parts of a workshop, or any human encounter, come when something doesn’t go according to plan. It’s important to remember that when events go astray, they can go better than we expected or intended, as well as worse – especially if we take advantage of the moment.

So that’s why I brought a ladder to a Zoom keynote. Even if you, too, are trapped by the boxes of the videoconference screen, what can you do to help yourself, and the people you speak with, find a fresh perspective on the futures which await?

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