The Time of the Surprise: Strategy for the Wooden World

I spoke this week at the Inclusive 2040 event hosted in Plymouth, England, to explore the future of sustainable, equitable growth in that city.

Alongside speakers including Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute, Fiona Tuck of Metro Dynamics, Alexis Bowater OBE, and Tim Sydenham, I presented an interactive session on strategic foresight, drawing on an adapted version of the IMAJINE scenarios.

Britain’s so-called “Ocean City” has been a strategically important naval site for centuries, thanks to its shipyards and dockyards. In exploring the future for the city, we also wanted to acknowledge its long history. Who we have been in the past shapes who we are today, and the potential for who we might need to become tomorrow.

In Plymouth’s naval heyday, the time of the Napoleonic wars, each ship was its own “wooden world”, a microcosm moving through the ocean. The image of a man o’war sailing into battle evokes a particular notion of strategy: directing one’s own organization like a vessel through changing waters, assessing the conditions of the weather and the sea, weighing one’s limited resources, managing the morale of one’s crew, and making judicious choices in combat and competition with other, rival ships.

At times, leading an organization can feel like steering one of the ships pictured in Dominic Serres’ Return of a Fleet into Plymouth Harbour: even in a familiar setting, all is not certain. Some hazards are evident and well-charted; others may lie below the waterline; others still may vary with the conditions of the sea and the sky. Each figure in Serres’ painting, whether on the land or aboard a vessel large or small, will have a different perspective on the waters which the fleet is seeking to successfully navigate.

Such multiple perspectives can prove useful in helping us to understand the three elements which Geoffrey Vickers identified as fundamental to wise decision-making in his book The Art of Judgment:

What is going on? What does it mean for us? And what can we do about it?

Yet our world is different from that of centuries past. The connections and complexities which define it have evolved considerably, as has the speed and quality of communication. Strategizing today involves much more than guiding a single ship, squadron, or fleet in competition against hostile powers.

As Trudi Lang and Richard Whittington write in Harvard Business Review, we must adopt a broad view of strategy, rather than leaders’ traditional approach of “taking the long view and focusing on where they’re going”:

Thinking narrowly, in terms of traditional sectors, industries, or geographies, can limit or blindside an organization. A better approach is to think in terms of systems. Doing so sensitizes leaders to broad changes of context and allows them to bring actors together from many sectors, which in turn enables the creation of new value.

Telling Stories Across The Centuries

In Plymouth, we explored the use of scenarios – plausible stories of the future contexts which we might have to inhabit, usefully contrasting with current expectations and assumptions – to inform local decision-making on issues of equity, sustainability, and the economy.

We thought not just about how to “steer a ship” and use it to achieve one’s goals, but how ships are discussed and designed, how they find their purpose and come by their identity, both individually and as a collective: we talked about what a ship means.

One vessel we discussed as an example was called HMS Surprise.

Many ships have borne this name, but this particular Surprise is famous for having served as the setting for some of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, an acclaimed twenty-book sequence of historical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars. Elements from the novels were filmed in 2003 as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey took the Surprise into battle against a French frigate.

Though O’Brian’s novels and the 2003 film are entirely fictional, the Surprise itself was a real vessel with an unusual history. Originally a French corvette called Unité, it was captured by the British and taken to Plymouth, where it underwent refitting before entering service with the Royal Navy.

When peace came and the Surprise was no longer needed, it was sold by the navy and broken up. Its story was at an end until the author O’Brian resurrected it to serve as the “wooden world” for his heroes, the bluff Captain Aubrey and the saturnine Maturin.

In the 1990s, a replica of the 18th century HMS Rose was rented for an event in New York promoting the Aubrey-Maturin books. O’Brian remarked that with a suitable repaint, the replica Rose would be a dead ringer for the Surprise. The paint job was arranged, and O’Brian was so impressed that he lifted a prior prohibition on adapting the books to film. The replica was even used in the 2003 movie adaptation.

HMS Surprise (replica vessel, a repaint of HMS Rose), 2000

This story offers an alternative view of strategy to the one which is merely about steering one’s ship to a desired goal. It shows how strategy is also about questions of meaning, identity, purpose, and value. The Unité was reborn as the Surprise, and set to work against its original builders in the war for which it was created. Subsequently, many years after its physical destruction, it gained literary renown in O’Brian’s novels, which in turn had found commercial success in part because publishers were looking for a successor to C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower books after Forrester’s death. The story of the fictional Surprise became so compelling and valuable that it led to a Hollywood production, with new value being created for new actors — and yet another boat, born under one name, finding a second life as the resurrected Surprise.

Historical Novels of the Future

As historical novels, O’Brian’s books offer further insights into the work of strategy and decision-making. When it comes to answering Vickers’ three questions – What is going on? What does it mean for us? And what can we do about it? – our sense of which answers are plausible is key. Scenarios, as manufactured future contexts which contrast with current assumptions and expectations, stretch plausibility in useful ways.

Historical fiction similarly plays with questions of what is plausible and credible to a given audience. O’Brian’s books are praised for their verisimilitude, but do we really know what it was like to serve on a naval ship centuries ago? As the archaeologist O. Hugo Benavides puts it, “We’ll never know what the past was really like. All we have is the fiction we’ve made with limited evidence.”

The historical novelist Allan Mallinson, speaking about the Aubrey-Maturin novels on the BBC’s Bookclub, noted that although O’Brian was “prodigiously clever, prodigiously well-read, and had the most powerful of imaginations”, he probably never went to sea himself, and certainly didn’t have substantive experience of the kind of sailing depicted in his novels. Yet this didn’t prevent his works from ringing true to audiences in the era for which he was writing. There is a collaboration or collusion between readers and writers as to what they agree to believe in.

As Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson put it in Strategic Reframing, their guide to the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach,

The novel, like the scenario, enables conversational relations between readers and the writer in rereading […] Scenarios as novels can thus be understood as scans or searches, often expressed in writing as stories of that which is yet to be imagined. These fictions are relations between the writer (the scenario planning facilitator and the scenario builders), and the reader (the learner or user of the scenarios). In these relations the writer enables the reader to imagine, that is, to form clear, enlightening, even radiant mental images of what might happen, so that these clearly imaged futures take on a “realistic” position in the attentive mind of the user.

They cite Carlos Fuentes: “What then is a novel, other than telling that which cannot be told otherwise? A novel is a verbal search of that which awaits being written […N]ever again should we have only one voice or reading. Imagination is real and its languages multiple.”

With O’Brian’s historical novels, and with future scenarios intended help us to reperceive our strategic situation in the present, it is not a question of “getting it right”. There is no yardstick against which one can assuredly measure the accuracy of novels set centuries ago or scenarios set in times yet to come. Instead, we believe the details; we look for internal consistency; we find the actors and their interactions, the texture and dynamics of the setting, authentic and compelling – even when they surprise us and challenge our assumptions.

The relationship between O’Brian’s heroes provides an excellent example of this. We find their friendship, which is at the core of the novels, credible even in its paradox and complexity. Aubrey is the creature of instinct and convention, Maturin the cool-headed embodiment of intellect and curiosity, yet these figures work in alliance, not opposition – and they contain within them a richness, too, as we see by the normally coarse Aubrey’s remarkable sensitivity to, and appreciation of, fine music.

Where did O’Brian find these characters and the dynamics of their relationship? In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, the psychologist Jerome Bruner, following Freud’s essay on “the poet and the daydream”, says that “the act of composition is, after all, an act of decomposition: the artist’s separation of his own internal cast of characters into the characters of the story or play. The plot then becomes a hypothetical realization of the reader’s own ‘psychodynamics’.”

Bruner cites the poet Czeslaw Milosz:

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
A thing is brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us,
So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
And stood in the light, lashing his tail.

In scenarios work, similarly, the relationships and uncertainties which shape our environment are laid bare, analyzed, recombined into novel future situations which are made vivid and plausible and open to exploration. It can be an uncomfortable experience, facing the tiger that we hadn’t seen nesting in the blind spots of our perception, challenging our very sense of who we are and the role we play, as well as the future context for our existence and our actions.

Just as, through storytelling, we can make ourselves the object of our own reflection, sometimes the “a-ha” moment of scenario work is a recognition about ourselves and the limits of the frame through which we’ve been making sense of a situation.

Strange New Wooden Worlds

I first came across Bruner in a different kind of wooden world – the library in Senate House at the University of London. As a doctoral student, I would spend days there, at sail in a sea of information, drifting along the shelves stuffed with wood pulp, knowing that it was impossible to take it all in but also that the next serendipitous find could transform my research. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds was a bit of a stretch from my PhD’s focus on exiles and émigrés from Nazi Germany and Austria, but the title alone had sparked my curiosity and I added it to the pile on my desk – no wonder I became a scenario planner.

The wooden sea of all those pages had its own special aura. I vividly remember the ripe tobacco stink of the shelves where they kept the ancient copies of Hansard. Although the collections of the library were catalogued and carefully categorised, to me they felt oceanic. I thought of Douglas Adams, writing in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books:

any given universe is not actually a thing as such, but is just a way of looking at what is technically known as the WSOGMM, or Whole Sort of General Mish Mash. The Whole Sort of General Mish Mash doesn’t actually exist either, but is just the sum total of all the different ways there would be of looking at it if it did […] You can slice the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash any way you like and you will generally come up with something that someone will call home.

Please feel free to blither now.

Adams was writing of parallel universes, but the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash applies both to the universe of information which is out there for us to explore, and our ability to perceive what is really going on around us, which is so fundamental to strategy. We simply can’t take it in all at once, so we need frames to make sense of our perceptions and figure out what is pertinent to our goals and needs. Yet no one frame is definitive, and sometimes we need to find a way to slice things up differently. Scenarios provide this ability to cut a different line through the Whole Sort of General Mish-Mash and show us a different perspective on our environment.

I still have the paperback copy of Bruner’s book which I bought after encountering it at Senate House, but I had forgotten that it was the origin of that quotation about decomposing one’s internal cast of characters. To find out where it was from, I had to leave the wooden world, go online, and search Google. The phrase had stuck in my head without attribution. Finding that it came from Bruner was like an unexpected reunion with an old friend.

Even though my search had been digital, in many senses, we continue to live in a wooden world. Though today’s ships are metal and increasingly automated, though the books themselves may be electronic, we recognise that our planet is and must remain a green one if we wish for it, and for us, to survive and thrive. As Gerry McGovern’s recent keynote for the VALA conference noted, electronic waste and the power consumed by digital processes have a significant, yet often invisible, environmental impact.

Like the wooden world of the HMS Surprise, logistics also remain important today. We have moved from a time when a warship was a literal powder keg, stocked with dangerous explosives and ammunition for its cannons, able only to restock in a friendly port or by claiming spoils from defeated enemies, to an era where globalised supply chains have been sorely tested by the trials of COVID-19. Now, the world is considering whether it needs to move from “just in time” to “just in case” principles of supply. As a team from Saïd Business School put it two years ago, “investing in procurement builds resilience“.

Resilience also remains a question of emotions and relationship dynamics. In the time of the Surprise, an unhappy crew would produce great tensions on board a ship, capable even of causing it to fail its mission. When the use of the lash was the ultimate tool of naval discipline, leaders had to find the right balance of liberty and control to ensure their crew were able to work together successfully, overcome obstacles, and achieve their goal. Thankfully the lash is no longer with us, but questions of hierarchy and the tension between freedom and control, duty and wellbeing, remain.

Storytelling Beyond The Age of Sail

Like the captains of an individual naval vessel in the age of sail, it is easy for us to get caught up in the business of steering our own vessels, inhabiting “wooden worlds”, microcosms hemmed in by preconceptions, expectations, assumptions and habits of thought. These are the frames which the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack sought to break open in the “a-ha” moments which scenarios could generate. In such moments, we look beyond the limits of the mindset through which we have habituated ourselves to view situations and make decisions.

Storytelling is one of the acts with the greatest power to break the frame and show us something new. It can guide, like the narratives of patriotism and duty which spurred both real-life sailors and the characters from O’Brian’s novels. It can endure long beyond the material circumstances which spawned it, like the HMS Surprise restored to life through books and film and a replica vessel. It can provoke us to see that the world could be otherwise, and that, if the world could be otherwise, we might need to rethink our choices and decisions in the light of multiple alternative futures.

It can do this even if the tale it tells is not, in some sense, true. The fictional Aubrey and Maturin can still inspire us. A scenario can yield insight even if its future never comes to pass. Even the tale of the Surprise and its afterlife is one I can’t know for sure, drawing as I have from Wikipedia and other online sources. What I’ve written here isn’t necessarily a profound piece of historical research. But, as the foresight practitioner Josh Polchar says, the story can still teach us something, stretch our thinking, regardless. Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily matter if the story is true, only whether it has purchase on our thinking.

If it does, then we can learn from it, and make better decisions about what we do next, as we face an uncertain future.

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