Dots that I haven’t joined yet

I’m momentarily at rest in my beloved Brisbane, with the sun blazing down in December and bushfires on the news and Leila Taylor’s book Darkly to read.

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Taylor’s book, subtitled Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, blends memoir and criticism to explore the places where African-American history, culture, and experience meet the Gothic – from The Castle of Otranto through Edgar Allan Poe to Marilyn Manson.

I’m back in Australia helping organisations to look at their future and imagine what might await them in years to come, using scenario planning. This is a method by which, instead of trying to predict what’s coming, we co-create plausible visions of the future which challenge our current assumptions. Successful scenarios are not judged by whether they come to pass, but whether they trouble, complicate, and enrich our thinking.

And the dots which I can’t quite join yet became visible when I read this, in Darkly: “Gothic narratives were (and still are) a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction.”

Which is so close to what scenarios do as to blur the edges of the two concepts. In scenario planning we talk about avoiding the “brutal audit” of a crisis by rehearsing for the things you can’t, or don’t want to, see coming through your current framing of the world.

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IMAJINE pilot workshops: the future of spatial justice

Our IMAJINE team working on scenario planning for the future of regional inequality and territorial cohesion in the European Union has held its first pilot workshops on the West Coast of Ireland.

Researchers and regional officials joined NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and myself at the Teagasc Rural Economy Research Centre in Athenry. There, we trialled fast, practical foresight tools allowing participants to sketch roadmaps of the futures which may await them.

The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which we’re using to structure these sessions, allows us to identify and develop plausible scenarios which serve to test assumptions and reframe the way participants look at the future. By imagining the most difficult or surprising circumstances a community might face, we seek to develop a playbook of strategies for emergent issues in territorial inequality and spatial justice.

The IMAJINE project continues through 2021 and incorporates Europe-wide foresight alongside deeply local engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders. Stay tuned for more updates.

The Digitalisation of Education: Foresight Work at the University of Oslo

On 28 October, the University of Oslo Media & Communications Department brought together researchers, educators, publishers, and representatives of the tech sector & not-for-profits to begin the work of building scenarios that test assumptions about the future of education in Norway.

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I facilitated an iterative process generating three visions of Norwegian society in years to come, exploring social, technological, cultural and economic change – always seeking to capture factors and possibilities which lay beyond the current framing of Norway’s educational future.

This workshop was only the beginning of an ambitious future-facing research programme at the Media & Communications Department, but I hope to be able to share materials with you in due course.

New South Wales Strategy & Leadership Workshops

“It was important to us that our participants would gain a greater understanding of how to think about the changes and needs in their own communities and would learn some tools or techniques that they could continue to apply and revisit… essentially building both an awareness of trend monitoring but also the capability to respond with creative local strategies. The feedback from participants throughout the workshops and afterwards has been really positive with many commenting on how they would be able to use what they’d learned straight away with their teams.”

The feedback has arrived from the two day-long strategy workshops which I ran for the State Library of New South Wales this month. The sessions were designed to equip attendees with practical foresight, planning, and advocacy tools; I delivered them together with Brendan Fitzgerald as observer/respondent to the day’s activities.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, although of course there’s still much to learn as we explore ways to put sophisticated foresight tools like scenario planning in the hands of information professionals at all ranks, from communities large and small.

“Great approach to strategy and the tools make sense – Worth it.”

“A totally engaging and thought provoking day. A fantastic opportunity to interact with colleagues across NSW libraries and even though we come from very different situations, large and small libraries, the challenges we face have common ground.”

“Great day – Matt a very charismatic presenter and Brendan really well grounded in the realities of Library services. Great to have the opportunity to work with other Libraries and some novel approaches to workshopping!”

“Not what I expected at all. I thought it was going to be a talkfest and I was wondering how I will stay alert after lunch!!But we had short breaks, started on time and were kept connected to our table group and sent around the room to interact with the other groups in the room.”

“It was a wonderful day with practical hands-on information heard and learnt through application. I was very pleased I was able to participate in this. Thank you for hosting this event and bringing someone with Matt’s resume to Sydney for us to all learn from and be inspired.”

“This seminar was one of the most engaging, informative and stimulating professional development activities I have attended. I would have willingly attended the 2nd session.”

“The most valuable and thought-provoking professional development opportunity I have ever attended.”

This is Wack: Fun, wise, and practical strategic foresight

If you’ve been following my exploration of strategy and foresight tools, especially scenario planning and the Value-Creating Systems approach, you might have seen or heard me talking about Pierre Wack.

This French business executive brought a philosophical approach influenced by Sufi mysticism into the oil industry, and changed the way businesses look at the future by pioneering the use of scenarios at Royal Dutch Shell. As the Economist put it, “So successful was he that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was able to anticipate not just one Arab-induced oil shock during [the 1970s], but two.

Following Wack’s retirement from industry, he taught at Harvard Business School and contributed to the development of South Africa’s post-apartheid future through scenario planning.

The Saïd Business School’s Oxford Futures Library includes Wack’s archive, and they’ve posted a video of one of his 1980s lectures online.

The video quality isn’t great, but the lecture is easy to follow and it remains an elegant, relevant, and compelling articulation of how scenarios benefit any organisation that wants to think about its future.

You can watch the full 55-minute video above or watch Wack’s lecture directly on Vimeo. I’ve included some bullet points and intepretation from my viewing below – to whet your appetite for the full lecture, or to offer you a summary. (Just remember, as Wack might say, there are no short cuts to wisdom).

  • “To create, rather than just preserve, value, a firm must discover the forces at work in its social, technological, and economic world and move to make those forces work for it rather than against it” – Wack citing Richard Rummelt
  • Most of the time, forecasts are quite good. This is what makes them so dangerous: forecasts fail you just when you need them most. Forecasts fail to anticipate major changes and major shifts in the context in which you operate.
  • Scenarios are devices for ordering one’s perceptions about alternative environments in which one’s decisions might be played out.
  • Strategies derive from our mental model of the world. We plan, not in order to create a document full of forecasts, but to change the mental map of decisionmakers and make us take responsibility for our worldview. A scenario doesn’t need to be “proven right” as a prediction, it needs to usefully change your mental model.
  • You only need scenario planning when the speed of change of the business environment is faster than your own speed of reaction.
  • The most dangerous forecasters are those who have just been proven right, because most probably they were right for the wrong reason.
  • Usually there will be a “surprise-free scenario” – the future which management expects. Scenario planners should include this in their offer so that their presentations do not seem threatening. It is usually easy to show how fragile the surprise-free scenario is, however.
  • Scenario planning is not crystal ball gazing, it is about working out the implications of events which have already happened and are still emerging. If heavy rain falls at the upper part of the Ganges basin, then you’ll see the consequences in two days time downstream at Rishikesh; in three or four days at Allahabad; and then at Benares two days after that. You are recognising the future implications of events which have already occurred – and your focus should be on understanding the forces which drive the system.
  • Understanding these factors is key. At Shell, articulating the scenarios – the future visions or stories themselves – was a small proportion of the time spent with executives. Once the scenarios had been presented to leaders, the rest of the time focussed on understanding and exploring the factors.
  • Compared to number crunching, scenario planning is fun. It forces planners to take account of a wider context and a richer vision of what awaits them than a mere line on a graph.
  • Scenarios should permit you to exercise your judgment: if this future were to transpire, what would you do about it? Scenarios are intended to inform action, not just generate intellectual interest. They are focussed, reducing complexity, allowing you to be creative with the relevant information.

Read more about Pierre Wack and scenario planning at the Oxford Futures Library.

 

Things That Make You Go Boop: Self-Check and Engels’ Pause

We order most of our groceries online in our house, but when we’re short on something or have forgotten a vital ingredient, we go to a Sainsbury’s supermarket ten minutes down the road. There are two tills staffed by cashiers and three of those machines that make you go boop: you have to scan the items for yourself, passing their barcodes over the laser light, and the machine lets you know it has logged the item with a “boop” sound.

I work a fair bit with public libraries, which also have things that make you go boop these days.

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The Library as Value-Creating System

Here are a few thoughts on how we might apply the Value-Creating System (VCS) approach – which focusses on relationships as much as transactions or products, emphasises collaboration as much as competition, and incorporates values other than the financial – to public libraries.

Box full of colourful characters and figures with placards labelled "Library of the Future - Some assembly required

What Does a Library Do, Anyway?

It can be hard to define a library’s purpose these days.

This is more of a problem for public libraries than for other institutions. Universities and colleges have well-articulated information needs, as do hospitals, courts, and other government bodies, or large enterprises which employ librarians of their own. Libraries within these organisations serve the information needs of a specified group, and often those needs and services are pretty well defined too.

Public libraries, however, struggle more with self-definition. They provide a wide and varied range of services, plus the communities they serve are often more diverse and less tightly defined. Some corners of Libraryland have been talking about this online for a while. Read more

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.