Yoga for Futurists

Got a pen, paper, and fifteen minutes to think about the future?

This short video, “Yoga for Futurists“, will help you build strength and flexibility in the ways you or your organization looks at the future.

You can also read more about one of the activities featured in this video, “Arrows of Time“, on this blog.

So if you feel like stretching your sense of the world to come, and the ways by which you might choose your future, grab something to write with and press play on the video above.

The World When We’re Gone

I was in a room with more than a hundred smart and lively library leaders from across the state of California and I asked them:

What do California and the future have in common?

My favourite answer was: “They’re both getting hotter.”

As always with these things, participants come up with wittier and more perceptive answers than you ever did when you thought of the question.

That is, of course, the point: if you have 100+ people in the room, is the best way to find bright ideas & useful answers for one person to talk, and one hundred to listen – or should you get all the minds in the room at work on the problem?

So I asked my hundred guests what California and the future have in common, but I did also have an answer of my own in mind:

They’re both socially constructed — we talk them into existence.

This is true for the future because it exists only in terms of our hopes, fears, plans, predictions, strategies, expectations, anticipations, and the blind spots which we are currently failing to detect or anticipate. In the strategic planning work I’ve done with Rafael Ramirez and the team at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the scenario approach emphasises this, constructing plausible futures – not predictions – in order to challenge the assumptions of the present.

It’s also true to say that we talk California into existence, because any human-made identity must be labelled, demarcated, defined in opposition to what it is not, talked about until it sticks and perhaps even takes on a life of its own – or at least a life bigger than any one of us. California exists as a geographical territory and history, a legal code and legislature, a perceived “state of mind”, but also as a blurry and porous concept, susceptible to reinterpretation and change. The Mexican province of Baja California, for example, reminds us that even the name of California predates US statehood and speaks to a previous colonial history.

One way to think about ourselves differently – to step outside the necessities of the day-to-day and the usual frameworks by which we seek to understand and control the future – is to imagine the world after we’re gone.

It’s not the full, rigorous construction of plausible futures which we conduct in scenario planning, but it is a useful way of testing our assumptions – and as Rafael Ramirez puts it, even “back-of-the-napkin” futures work can help us prepare for the world to come.

So here are two questions I sometimes offer to organisations that I work with:

Imagine a hundred years from now, your work has been a huge success and changed the face of society for the better. The head of state comes to the commemoration and gives a speech celebrating your organisation’s work. What do they talk about?

Imagine that five years from now, after a catastrophe, society has collapsed and your organisation has ceased to exist. How do people feel about that? What do they miss about your work? What structures or arrangements did they have to construct to replace the role you served in society? 

Think about these questions. Answer them for yourself, but also share them with your colleagues and clients and other stakeholders, to see how their responses compare with yours. You might be surprised by what you find – or reassured by the common ground which exists. Either way, you’ll only find out if you choose to step back from the day-to-day and dare to imagine a world after you’re gone.

And if you want to give it a California spin, well: here’s Los Angeles’ L7.

#NotEnoughSciFi: A dream who’s trying to save us

Are you watching Fleabag? I love Fleabag. The first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom was so exquisite and complete, I could hardly believe there would ever be a follow-up. And yet – Fleabag series two is here.

I love the show for its mix of comedy, desperation, and sheer social awkwardness, all born of a radical honesty about the things we usually keep to ourselves.

One way that Fleabag discloses these hidden thoughts is by the lead character’s asides to camera – a televisual evolution from the play in which she originally appeared, a one-woman show where the character confessed all to her audience.

Read more

Dreaming Spires, New Scenarios

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be joining the team at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School (SBS) as a facilitator on the upcoming Oxford Scenarios Programme.

'Dreaming Spires', by Flickr User JJBullock - Copyright JJ Bullock 2010
‘Dreaming Spires’, by Flickr User JJBullock – Copyright JJ Bullock 2010

The programme offers an intensive course in developing strategies which address multiple plausible futures. You can find out more about the programme at the SBS website.

A different way to plan your 2019

Are you thinking about the year to come? Do you make New Year’s resolutions, or use January 1st as a turning point for your life at work or home?

Here’s a quick & easy planning tool I sometimes use in workshops. It’s adapted from the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, where it’s called “Arrows of Time”.

You just need a piece of paper – even a napkin will do! – and something to write on it with.

First, put the paper in landscape orientation, with the long sides at the top and bottom, and draw an arrow from the bottom left corner, pointing right. This represents the past.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.15.34

Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What will we still be dealing with in 2019?
  • What issues from the past can’t we get away from?
  • What isn’t finished yet from the year just gone?

When this is done, draw another arrow from the top right corner, pointing left. This represents the future.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.15.49

Now, around this arrow, answer these questions:

  • What do we know is coming in 2019?
  • What do we fear about the coming year? What do we hope for?
  • What do we expect to happen?
  • What have we failed to prepare for in 2019?
  • What can’t we avoid about the year to come?

Between these two arrows lies your room to manoeuvre. In the space between them, draw a box, representing your capacity to choose the future you wish for.

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In the box, answer these questions:

  • What do you want to happen? What can you plausibly achieve next year?
  • What actions should you take to meet these goals?
  • What can you do to prepare against unpleasant surprises, or outcomes you wish to avoid?
  • What can you do to be ready for happy accidents and unexpected opportunities next year?

This is just a quick, simple activity, but it helps you to plan in a way that allows for the turbulence and uncertainty of any future – looking not just towards your objectives but the context in which you will need to make them happen.

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As Oxford University’s Rafael Ramirez put it in our recent discussion on scenario planning, such “back-of-the-napkin” activities can be valuable as a starting point, or in constrained financial circumstances:

The metaphor I use is buying a television. If you don’t have a lot of time, or your organisation has been cut back, you may have to do only a good-enough piece of work: like buying a cheap black-and-white television to see who has won the World Series.

If you have enough time or funds, you can buy yourself a big colour television which shows more detail about what is happening. […] To get more detail, better arguments, better references: a better, more detailed colour picture on your television. But getting started costs very little indeed.

An organisation’s intent should be clear, compelling, and easy to articulate succinctly. So should your plans for 2019.

Why not grab a piece of paper today and sketch out where you’d like to head in the year to come?

Four (or more) reads from 2018

I got through a lot of books this year, so I just want to pick out a few that were especially important to my work in 2018.

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Wayne & Shirley Wiegand’s The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South was recommended by librarians in Mississippi, when I visited the state to run Library Island in April.

The Wiegands’ book is a useful historical study in how public institutions comply with, mitigate, abet, or resist an abusive regime. To really get to grips with this issue, you should follow it with Margaret Stieg’s 1992 article on how public libraries transformed in the Germany of the 1930s.

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My Mississippi trip also allowed me to visit the state’s Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. It’s one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. You can read more about the place in this New York Times article.

the enemy

Collaborating with the Enemy, by Adam Kahane, looks at peacemaking and negotiation work, drawing on examples from Thailand, South Africa, and Colombia. Kahane is remarkably honest about his frustrations and failures, as well as his successes, in projects intended to promote collaboration under the most difficult conditions. It’s well worth a read, to challenge and inspire you.

kottler

I read Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson’s Bad Therapy as part of a Kottler binge earlier this year, seeking insights to borrow from other relationship-focussed disciplines.

For Bad Therapy, the authors interviewed a number of leading practitioners on the topic of their greatest failures. The resulting discussions are brave, humbling, and food for thought in any profession.

What would it mean to focus on one’s failures in this way? What do bad librarianship, bad journalism, bad teaching or curation or medicine or design look like when the practitioner themselves admits to a job done poorly? This book is excellent for anyone interested in professional learning and growth, whatever field they work in.

Being_Mortal

Finally, I was four years late to an encounter with Atul Gawande’s Being Mortala 2014 reflection on the decisions and dilemmas associated with end-of-life care.

The challenges faced in caring for those who are close to death emphasise and highlight problems which we confront in any healthcare setting. These include the limits of the patient’s right to choose, the authority of the physician over those in their care, and quality of life versus the drive to preserve life at all costs.

Gawande’s typically sensitive and personal discussion of these topics reminded me of Sherwin Nuland’s 1992 National Book Award winner How We Die. The challenge that faces us in healthcare is that the same issues Nuland identified more than twenty-five years ago still plague our health systems today.

Gawande – who more recently wrote for the New Yorker about the frustrations of medical software – is a humane and articulate guide to this territory. I’ll return to this topic in the new year.

These were my best reads of 2018. They’ll stay with me, joined by new writers and new volumes, in the year to come.

What were your best reads from the year just gone?

Scandinavian Workshops

When should we fight an oncoming future? And when should we embrace it?

What does good citizenship mean today? And what will it mean to our children?

Does anyone have the right to “make a better citizen”?

How can libraries help people to live well together?

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This October, I’ll be working with information professionals in three Scandinavian countries to explore these questions, and more.

Join me in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark for practical workshops that explore possible futures for libraries and information science.

I’ll also be keynoting Norway’s national library conference on 24th October. Please join us if you can, or follow on social media.

The Question Box: Exploring Teamwork

A colleague working in a think tank faced a knotty challenge: how to lead a conversation about a team’s attitude to collaboration and teamwork, when she herself was a part of that team.

The activity formed part of an away day and the session was set to last ninety minutes. I worked with my colleague to devise activities that would prompt frank and constructive conversations, free her from the role of facilitator, and create space for imaginative new ideas to surface.

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The Question Box

The core activity we came up with was a series of questions or challenges written on cue cards, to be drawn from a box. Like the Presenterless Workshops activity, this encourages participants to take charge of the discussion and gives them freedom in how they approach the topic. Read more