Interview with Peter Morville: Planning for Everything in Times of COVID-19

Peter Morville is one of the pioneers of information architecture and user experience, working with clients including AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Intertwingled, Search Patterns, Ambient Findability and, most recently, Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

With a background like that – and more than a quarter of a century’s experience in helping people and organizations to plan – I was keen to talk with Peter about what he was learning from the turbulence of the COVID era. We spoke early in October 2020.

Peter Morville

A man writes a book called Planning for EverythingHow has this year affected your paths and goals?

2020 is a special year, in all sorts of terrifying ways, but I think that the trends towards unpredictability have been growing for us in recent years. It’s not just 2020, right?

In my book, Planning for Everything, one of the biggest encouragements is for people to be mindful of the balance that we strike between planning and improvisation. Even though it’s a book about planning, part of my message is that we should have humility when we think about the future, and our ability to predict or control it.

I remember several years back talking with a friend who was spending some time in Rwanda. She said that, when she was there, it was a country where it was harder to plan that it was in the United States. There were more unexpected things that happened, you couldn’t count on stability, even down to the level of deciding that next Wednesday was going to be a good day for your coffee date, because something might come up.

Stability has been unevenly distributed around the world, probably forever. In countries such as the UK and the United States, many of us have been fortunate to enjoy significant amounts of stability and predictability, where we can say, “I’m going to plan a vacation in three months, or a wedding in nine months.” Many of us have a lifetime of experiencing that the things we plan, happen! 

The last few years have really eroded our sense of confidence in our ability to plan for the future. I would say in the United States right now, I’ve never experienced a period where there’s so much uncertainty, whether that’s from COVID-19, climate change and wildfires, the upcoming presidential election, civil unrest…Planning a vacation three months from now seems a bit crazy!

Sometimes instability creates opportunity as well as jeopardy. Obviously one wouldn’t wish this pandemic on the world, but can you see opportunities arising from the current moment?

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The Sense of an Ending: Stories, Shapes, & Scenarios During COVID-19

Doesn’t it feel as if this pandemic might go on forever? Do you have any sense of whether we’re at the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the middle, or the beginning of the end?

Doesn’t it feel like everyone is yearning for something that gives these events shape, an arc, a trajectory, a sense that we will come eventually – by vaccine, or treatment, or policy, or simple resignation – to something that we can label as “the end of the COVID era”?

Even the phrase “the new normal” seems somehow plaintive, as if it only wished that we could settle on a final state of affairs which would mark the end of all this flux and uncertainty. Even if a single, solid “new normal” ever arrives, we’ll be paying the price for COVID for years to come.

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Workshop – Cones, Grids, and Timelines: A Visual Approach to Scenario Planning

As part of the online Thinking Through Drawing 2020 symposium, October 16-18 2020, I’ll be presenting a 45-minute workshop “Cones, Grids, and Timelines”, exploring how future scenarios can be devised and represented visually. You can see a short video outline of the session below.

If you’d like to join me, and a vibrant community of researchers, artists, visual communicators, and educators, find out more at the TTD website.

Strategy & Foresight: Keynote at ELGL Oktoberfest, October 7th 2020

Next month, I’ll be joining the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) Network’s 2020 Oktoberfest, a month-long online conference for the best and brightest minds from all levels of local government worldwide.

My keynote will launch the Okoberfest’s Strategy & Innovation summit with a two-hour session on Wednesday, October 7 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time.

oktoberfest slide

The highly participatory session will help attendees to develop skills in strategic foresight and decision-making, suitable for the uncertainties of 2020 and beyond. Tried and tested practical tools will be accompanied by international examples and case studies, including the current IMAJINE project examining the future of the European Union at a regional level.

The conference’s wider offer will also enable attendees to explore issues including creative placemaking, equity & anti-racism, efficiency, and happiness in local government.

Check out the full schedule, and register for the ELGL Oktoberfest, here.

OECD Government After Shock Podcast with Robert Hoge, Queensland Health

As part of the OECD’s Government After Shock project, I’m working with a team from their Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, interviewing public sector leaders & practitioners for a podcast series exploring their perspective on the crises of 2020, and implications for the future of government worldwide.

First up, Robert Hoge of Queensland Health talks about strategic health communications in a time of pandemic, coping with misinformation & disinformation, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience in Australia’s Sunshine State.

Who Are The Isley Brothers of Foresight?: Hidden Currents and George Lipsitz’s Footsteps in the Dark

In 1992, a consignment of around thirty thousand bath toys was lost from the Ever Laurel, a container ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. During a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, several containers were washed overboard, including one bearing “Friendly Floatees”. These Chinese-made toys took the form of red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles, and yellow ducks, and when the container holding them broke open, the Floatees were free to travel the oceans.

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Sitka, Alaska by Wikipedia user Christopher Michel – CC BY-SA 2.0

Ten months after the spill, most of these bath toys arrived on the beaches near Sitka, Alaska, but not all of them shared this fate. A number spent the winter of 1992-93 frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. Some floated back into the North Pacific, and yet others made their way through the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. Oceanographers eagerly studied their unexpected trajectories, which revealed previously unknown information about ocean currents.

footstepsIn his book Footsteps in the Dark, the American historian George Lipsitz uses this event to explore how cultural phenomena such as pop music also circulate via hidden currents, finding new life and new uses in different times and different places around the world.

He describes how KC and the Sunshine Band found their sound by combining influences from Pentecostal Christianity, doo-wop, Santería drumming and Bahamian “junkanoo” carnival music; how the infectious beat of Dion’s “The Wanderer” has its roots in the Italian tarantella; how a composition by George Clinton of Parliament owes its “operatic” quality to synagogue chanting which Clinton heard in childhood at a schoolfriend’s bar mitzvah.

Lipsitz also attends to the social uses of such music. Analysing the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title, he considers it an account of 1970s Black American experiences which were neglected by journalists and historians:

“As far as we know, the Isley Brothers did not intend to be historians of these changes or even to create a historical record of them with their music. They never chose to present an empirical accounting of events organized in chronological order, nor did their songs speak directly about politics, laws, or leaders. The Isley Brothers did not do research in traditional archives filled with government documents, personal records, or diaries of famous people. Yet they displayed extraordinary familiarity with and knowledge of what we might call the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections.”

Lipsitz gives us the tools to look not only at the past, but also the future, through lenses we might have previously neglected: sifting pop culture for overlooked clues to social change, examining cultural movements to understand the hidden currents which drive them, and making meaning from the “Friendly Floatees” which have drifted away from the course prescribed by the dominant social, political, and economic order.

“My hope,” he writes, “is that reading popular music as history and interpreting history through popular music will help us to hear the footsteps in the dark, to see how history happens and why music matters.” I believe that Lipsitz’s book also has much to teach us about the way we look at the future. Read more

Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

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Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse. Read more

Planning for Uncertainty: Scenarios and Foresight for Local Government

Last week, I put together this one-hour video session for America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network, ELGL.

It’s a straightforward foresight and strategy starter pack, no nonsense, no jargon, helping to answer the questions “Where are we going?” and “What should we do?”

The session is aimed at US local government leaders, but should work for a wide range of institutions, communities, and settings.

You can read more about the session and download a PDF “handout” with slides and further reading at the ELGL webpage, and I previously spoke with the ELGL team about leadership and foresight on their podcast last year.