Life After Missions: Hindsight for the Next Big Thing

Societal challenges are complex. More complex than going to the moon, which was mainly a technical feat. To solve them requires attention to the ways in which socio-economic issues interact with politics and technology, to the need for smart regulation, and to the critical feedback processes that take place across the entire innovation chain.

Mariana Mazzucato, Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation In The European Union

Every strategy, every approach, every angle of attack that we take in life – whether individually or as a collective – has its moment. Insurgents become incumbents, if they succeed; and the most novel or surprising innovations will, in time, become yesterday’s news.

The UK’s Wellcome Trust has just launched a new strategy built around three global challenges.

Wellcome is far from the only organization taking this approach. Using challenges to structure strategy echoes the new trend towards “mission-led innovation”, where systemic public policies draw on grassroots and frontline knowledge to attain specific goals. Whether it’s clean air in congested cities, continued independence in a healthy old age, or the challenges of cancer, climate change, and digital exclusion, missions are intended to help us apply big thinking to big problems – setting a clear direction for innovation while still enabling bottom-up solutions.

I think the mission-led approach is really promising, and I’ve been pleased to collaborate with organisations like Business Finland and Nesta as they explore what mission-setting might look like for them. But I’m also realistic about the limits of any one approach to ever serve as a panacea for the ills of our time. Inevitably, even the best strategies will have gaps and blindspots; no human endeavour escapes the need for tradeoffs, and omniscience is still an attribute which eludes us.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s easy for us to spot the gaps and blindspots in approaches of the past. The systems thinking which helped the United States to put human beings on the moon superseded previous innovation approaches in military aeronautics, and was itself superseded in turn; new management vogues like “agile” and “design thinking” also begin as upstarts, find purchase, and then eventually become routinised and diluted. (I was in a design thinking workshop in regional Australia once and at the warm-up, someone in the crowd said, “Please God, not ‘Fifty uses for a brick’ again” – which made me realise how widespread and familiar design thinking had already become).

Vision and values statements have been similarly outmoded, their reputation downgraded by the dissonance between claimed values and observed behaviour on the part of companies like Enron at the start of this century. The acerbic and brilliant strategy professor Richard Rumelt skewered “vision and values” in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:

The vision of the Central Intelligence Agency is “One Agency. One Community. An Agency unmatched in its core capabilities, functioning as one team, fully integrated into the Intelligence Community.” Digging slightly deeper, the CIA’s publically stated priorities all have to do with better teamwork and more investment in capabilities. Nowhere did it say that finding and killing Osama bin Laden was a top priority. Of course, one does not expct to see the strategies of the CIA on a public website. But if that is the case, why publish this fluff?

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

So – as the mission-based approach to innovation takes hold, and we begin the long and messy business of figuring out how to operationalise it, can we also run ahead and start to think about the inevitable gaps and blindspots which all of us mere mortals will develop?

In what ways does mission-based thinking blinker our vision? What must it neglect, in order to place its emphasis elsewhere? What unplanned consequences will spill out from the missions approach, whether applied perfectly or imperfectly?

One of the reasons I’m so keen to see and help people, communities, and organizations employ foresight methodologies like scenario planning is to strengthen their capacity to spot these gaps and blindspots sooner. Imagining the future consequences of the approach we’re about to employ – or the future contexts in which that approach and its consequences will take place – can give us something like the hindsight we train upon the approaches of the past.

It’s not possible to know yet what people in 2050 will think of the missions approach, how they will evaluate it, what they will celebrate, regret, or improve on – but it is possible to imagine and methodically explore versions of 2050 which cast light on the choices of today.

That’s one of the aspirations of the IMAJINE project, our Horizon 2020-funded scenario set investigating the future of European regional inequality and injustice. The diverse futures of IMAJINE, which currently exist as sketches and will be elaborated through 2021, can serve as playgrounds of the mind for us to test out the missions of today and reflect on how they will be perceived in IMAJINE’s four distinct visions of Europe in 2048.

However, foresight’s great benefits are in the process as much as the product. Scenarios aren’t the only way to start “kicking the tyres” of the mission methodology, or the specific missions you or your organization might choose to pursue.

Spending time considering the futures which your choices and methods will have to inhabit can enrich your perspective on the present – including the kind of blind spots that we only usually recognise after the fact. And maybe, this way, we can conjure the benefit of hindsight for the next big thing – even before it has fully arrived.

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