“New adventures in disasterology”: Learning from crisis with Christchurch Libraries

Katherine Moody is a librarian in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. She and I submitted a piece for the US Public Libraries Magazine at the end of March 2019, and it appears in the current (April/May 2020) issue. 

You can read that text, “Even In The Worst-Case Scenario”, as a PDF download here – but it would be an understatement to say that a lot has changed in the world since we wrote it! 

Worst Case Scenario

To keep the conversation moving forward, Katherine and I had a short discussion about libraries’ experience of crisis over the past year.

Matt:
In terms of our interest in coping with crises and turbulent situations, in understanding the part libraries have to play in these huge upsets: what has been learned?

Katherine:
So much has happened, both personally and professionally, and is continuing to happen, and taking a breath to look back is almost overwhelming.

I think we need to have the mindset – and the strategy – that we need to be prepared to face anything. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about some Crowded House lyrics recently: ‘I’ve been locked out / I’ve been locked in / but I always seem to come back again’. Read more

Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19: Mandarin Interview with Trudi Lang

My interview with Oxford University’s Trudi Lang for the Mandarin, published in late April 2020, can now be shared beyond their paywall. The full text of the piece appears below.

‘Never assume the future will be an extension of the past’ Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19

Matt Finch sat down with Trudi Lang, a senior fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Lang is a researcher and strategist with particular expertise in scenario planning, a foresight methodology that seeks not to predict the future but to usefully challenge our assumptions about what’s coming next.

“The key challenge of government is to prepare for a future in which we will be surprised time and again,” said Peter Ho, then Singapore’s top civil servant, in 2009.

Few people at the start of 2020 would have anticipated an enormous symmetric shock affecting the entire world, demanding drastic interventions from the state — yet experts had been warning of a pandemic for considerable time. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in March, the US federal government had rehearsed for a pandemic three times over the last four years.

Despite such rehearsals and the warnings of experts, many governments have been caught on the back foot by COVID-19. Countries that were considered to have an excellent capacity for pandemic response — the US and UK had been ranked highest among 195 countries’ ability to prevent and mitigate pandemics in 2019 — have found themselves floundering.

With the world plunged into uncertainty, how do we navigate the turmoil of the current pandemic and look beyond the crisis, into a future that is hard to picture clearly? Read more

#LocalGovCamp Lockdown – Charting & Strategising for Ongoing Uncertainties

I’ll be presenting a short introductory workshop, “The Pandemic and Beyond: Charting & Strategising for Ongoing Uncertainties“, at next week’s #LocalGovCamp session looking at COVID-19, the lockdown, and what lies beyond.

File:Tsunami by hokusai 19th century.jpg
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai

It’s the first ever virtual #LocalGovCamp, and in my workshop, we’ll consider the distinction between risk and uncertainty, explore straightforward ways to identify our strategic blindspots, and try out a range of tools intended to help an organisation and its stakeholders have richer, smarter conversations about their future decisions, on or offline.

We’ll refer to some practical case studies, and have time for questions and discussion of what it means to plan your way through the current pandemic and beyond.

Join us on Tuesday 12 May, 11.15am – 12 noon British Summer Time.

Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming

Over the last few weeks, on and offline, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about “preparing for the future you didn’t see coming”.

The foresight approaches which I favour tend to avoid predicting the future. Instead, I work with clients to highlight the futures you didn’t anticipate, either because you had a strategic blindspot or because you chose to ignore them.

Man with protective mask
Man with protective mask by Wikipedia user Tadeáš Bednarz – CC BY-SA 4.0

Was the pandemic one of the futures we couldn’t see coming, or one which we chose not to? And since its arrival, have our responses been based on what is really unfolding, or on mental models which we had previously constructed? Read more

Thinking Seriously About How Things Change

In a situation like the one we find ourselves currently in, there’s bound to be a lot of speculation.

Whether you’re now quarantined at home or still going in to your workplace, the chances are that you’re scrolling your digital device for the latest updates and information.

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Among all the other information you’ll have to sift, there will be articles, columns, and features asking whether the pandemic will permanently transform our way of life. Slate suggests that “thanks to the coronavirus, the future may arrive earlier than expected“; the Guardian warns that “life may never be ‘normal’ again“; New York magazine is already certain that “we can’t go back to the way things used to be“.

On Twitter today, I watched a thread of futurists roll by, “brainstorming about medium-long term scenarios” of COVID-19, offering what boiled down to a series of “what-if” questions.

But this is where I think we have to be more disciplined about how we approach the future.

One of the joys of looking at what comes next is that no-one knows for sure. The best efforts of the human race across history have failed to give us either crystal balls or time machines. Evidence, by definition, cannot be gathered from events which haven’t happened yet, so any predictive model involves a degree of faith that the future will be like the past in certain respects.

As a result, there’s a danger that we mistake the future for either a projected dot on a graph, or an intuition shaped by our hopes and fears. In fact, it’s a place we’re going to have to live, as rich and complex and contradictory as the present, and it’s totally inaccessible to us, right up until it arrives.

The word “scenarios” gets bandied around a lot in these circumstances, by people who really mean either “contingencies” or “speculations”. But scenarios aren’t daydreams, dystopias, projected data points, or simple “what ifs”.

Scenarios are methodically constructed by a group of stakeholders to locate the futures which lie outside of current assumptions. They’re not predictions and don’t expect to successfully locate the one future which will actually come to pass. A good scenario can be wild and unlikely, as long as it helps you to notice something you had previously ignored about what lies ahead.

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Scenarios have to be plausible – meaning that they challenge assumptions but are useful to inform decision-making. That means that, while they may incorporate some wild or unexpected circumstances, you’re not likely to spend much time scenario planning for the rise of Atlantis or the arrival of flying saucers from the great beyond.

Scenarios, as used on the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach at the Saïd Business School, actually have a pretty tight definition:

A small set
of manufactured possible future contexts
of something
for someone
for a purpose
with a pre-specified usable interface
and used.

This means:

  • we construct possible futures for a specific context, user, and purpose;
  • we only construct enough futures to usefully inform decision-making;
  • we attend, in advance, to how the user will receive and incorporate the scenarios into their work;
  • and the scenario engagement is only truly successful if the scenarios are used – that is to say, if they inform the decision which needs to be made.

This is why a lot of a scenario planner’s work happens in advance of the event at which possible future contexts will be created and discussed – because it is vitally important to define and understand the decision which the scenarios are meant to inform, and the context in which this decision will be made.

It is also why scenario planners must work hard in the latter stages of the process, once the future contexts have been created: the future stories and visions must inform the present-day decision which needs to be made.

As the great scenario planner Pierre Wack noted, in his work, 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. The stories of the future themselves can be discarded once they have opened users’ eyes to the issues which lay outside of their previous framing.

So, as the pandemic sweeps the globe and you start to ponder what happens next – for you, your community, your organisation, your nation, the whole global order – don’t get too caught up in speculation and punditry; and certainly don’t mistake them for useful scenarios.

If you find yourself in quarantine, eager to think about what comes next, you could take pen and paper and begin to think about your strategic blindspots through a “back of the napkin” activity like Arrows of Time.

You could read some of the serious scenario planning literature or read an interview with an accomplished scenario practitioner.

Or you could get in touch for a chat.

 

Strategy and Impact Workshops at State Library of New South Wales

Following a successful engagement last year at the State Library of New South Wales, I’ll be returning to Sydney with colleague Brendan Fitzgerald for two workshops in early May.

In our “Library Leaders Workshop Day” on May 4, Brendan & I will help senior library staff to explore a range of strategic tools and techniques. These will help teams think about changing wants and needs in their communities, building the capability to respond with creative local strategies.

Then, on May 5, we will explore ways of defining, measuring, and sharing the difference that public libraries make to their communities, in “Next-generation Measures and Metrics for Public Libraries“.

Join us for one or both of these sessions in May – we’re looking forward to seeing you.

Webinar: Intro to Scenario Planning for Information Professionals

On 18th March, at 12.30pm Greenwich Mean Time, you can join me for a webinar organised by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals.

We’ll be talking about scenario planning and foresight techniques which participants can employ in their organisations:

How can we prepare for an uncertain future? What part does good foresight play in resilience, organisational effectiveness, and community cohesion? If we can’t gather evidence from events which haven’t happened yet, and we don’t have a crystal ball to foretell what comes next, how can we complement evidence-based practice with sound strategic judgement?

This lively participatory session will introduce you to scenario planning, a method which allows us to examine the future by exploring the contexts which would most challenge our current assumptions – then deciding how to act in the present, based on what we have discovered.

Participants will learn the fundamentals of scenario planning and experiment with practical foresight tasks which can be immediately used after the session, across teams and organisations both large and small.

Find out more and book your place at the event’s homepage.

Scenario Planning: Interview with Stefan Hajkowicz

Stefan Hajkowicz is a principal scientist in strategic foresight at the Australian science organisation CSIRO, leading its Data61 foresight team. I interviewed Stefan for my recent piece on scenario planning in Australia’s magazine for civil servants, The Mandarin – and the full interview is included here.

Stefan Hajkowicz standing outdoors, facing the camera
Stefan Hajkowicz of Data61

I began by asking Stefan: What should readers know about Data 61?

We take data driven approaches to strategic foresight, using AI and machine intelligence to analyse data and turn it into stories that help you to make choices.

On an issue like climate change, for example, the science might be well and truly settled, but the social and cultural aspects of our response to the issue are still uncertain – and depending on these choices, we’ll come to inhabit very different futures. Scenarios help us to think through these outcomes.

Both reason and intuition have a part to play, and the best decisions combine both – though no model is 100% perfect. History is our dataset for the future. Although, to quote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. If we can gain the ability to look ahead twenty years, and bring the future forward to now, we can make better informed choices.

 

Read more

Interview with Joshua Polchar, OECD

As part of last month’s article on scenario planning for The Mandarin, I interviewed Joshua Polchar, a strategic foresight analyst and facilitator at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

OECD Conference Centre Paris – Photo by Wikipedia user Nick D – CC BY-SA 3.0

Scenario planning has been part of the OECD’s futures toolkit in the 1970s, but over the last decade, the organisation has started to enhance its capacity for strategic foresight.

Joshua began the conversation by explaining why – I’ll let him take it from here: Read more