Thinking with your non-dominant hand: ambidexterity and foresight

I wouldn’t say I have the best handwriting. It’s a bit of an unpretty scrawl, though people can mostly decipher it. I use my left hand to hold a pencil or pen, though I do everything else with my right; I can’t use left-handed scissors or can openers, and whenever it was I last played cricket or tennis, my right hand was dominant. I’m probably a natural righty who picked up the left-hand habit from copying a left-handed parent, back in those days when they first get you to clutch a crayon and make your mark.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

This week, I was helping a group of people learn to use scenario planning. There are a lot of ways to define what a scenario is, but in the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, scenarios are assessments of the future context, developed for a particular user and purpose, to contrast with the way that the future context is currently being framed. People engaged in scenario planning devise plausible futures in order to test assumptions, challenge existing framings, and enrich decision-making in the present.

Stretching your sense of the futures you may have to inhabit can feel like “thinking with your non-dominant hand”. We’re so used to trying to solve the problem in front of us, “get on with the job”, fix things, make them better, chart a course, steer the ship. The act of strategic reframing – creating plausible futures to stretch our understanding of a given context – can feel seriously counterintuitive.

Even clasping your hands or crossing your legs the opposite way round to usual can feel odd; using your non-dominant hand when playing sports, using scissors, or writing could feel even more so. So it’s not a surprise that scenario planning might feel strange when you first try it.

Yet releasing yourself from a dominant or habitual approach can bring all kinds of benefits. You may be forced to rethink processes from first principles, returning you to “beginner’s mind” and unpicking tightly woven assumptions. You may find that your engrained habits of thinking are patterns of comfort and convention, rather than the best way to address an issue. You may see things from a different angle when approaching from the left instead of the right, or vice versa.

In successful scenario planning engagements, people often feel a sudden moment of realisation – what the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack called an “a-ha” moment. “It does not simply leap at you,” Wack wrote in a 1985 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “It happens when your message reaches the microcosms of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions…and leads them to change and reorganise their inner models of reality.”

Once people have experienced this benefit of thinking from the “outside in” – starting with future contexts, then working back to an assessment of options and strategic possibilities, often in an iterative process which is enriched by multiple repetitions – they see the merits in going against the grain of habit.

The more they employ this approach, the better their “muscle memory” for scenario work. (A right-hander who tries playing the guitar left-handed just once might not get very far, but continued practice could yield competence and even virtuosity). Gradually it becomes possible to integrate “left-handed” and “right-handed” thinking into processes of assessment and decision-making, so that our perceptions, our judgment, and our capacity to act are enriched.

And in times of turbulence and uncertainty, when tomorrow will not be like yesterday or today, that could make all the difference.

Islands in the Sky: Scenario Planning for Information Architects

My colleague Monika Flakowska and I are presenting Islands in the Sky – An Introduction to Scenario Planning at the Information Architecture Conference this week.

Information architects design, organize, and label digital artefacts and services like websites, intranets, and software to help people find and use the information they want and need. Recently, Peter Morville, one of the “founding fathers” of IA, proposed a new definition: “the design of language and classification systems to change the world”. (You can read my interview with Peter here). In uncertain times, information architects need tools to think about the futures which their work may have to inhabit. That’s where scenario planning comes in.

Our interactive conference session invites attendees to try their hand at the basics of scenario planning, in a playful and thought-provoking online setting. It’s a successor of sorts to the in-person Library Island game which was so well-received in pre-COVID times.

We’ll report back from our experiments at the IA Conference and keep you updated as the Islands evolve.

New Strategic Plan for Open Education Global

The new strategic plan for Open Education Global (OEG), “Open for Public Good“, has just been released.

OEG is a member-based, global non-profit supporting the development and use of open education around the world. Over a six month period, I supported their leadership team in devising and delivering a planning process designed to engage stakeholders, elicit insights, and develop key areas of focus as part of a long-term strategy for the organisation.

Matt Finch played a tremendously helpful role in the development of Open Education Global’s 2021-2030 strategic plan – Open for Public Good.

Matt provided input and recommendations on what the overall process for developing a strategic plan should entail. He provided guidance on how to design hands-on interactive activities participants could do virtually during a pandemic to provide their input and recommendations. He introduced me to new concepts of value co-creation that ended up being one of our three areas of strategic focus. And he served as a member of a working group charged with synthesizing all the inputs into a draft strategic plan.

Throughout this entire process Matt was caring, helpful, and provocative, making sure we considered unexpected and novel perspectives. The resulting plan has been shared widely and is being received with excitement and support. I’m a Matt Finch fan and plan to do more work with him going forward.

Paul Stacey, Executive Director, Open Education Global

Find out more about Open Education Global at their website.

Dancing through the pain

I turned my ankle walking in the park the other day, which is good going for someone who used to hike at every opportunity and now, in lockdown, barely gets more than a block from his house.

It hurt a little, but the more notable thing is that it revived some memories.

Ten years ago, I broke my leg quite badly. It required surgery, and they screwed the bone back together with bits of metal.

It never really gives me problems these days, but any injury to the same leg gets me wondering and even worrying: Have I done something to the screws? Am I going to have to go through all of that again?

I dealt with my park injury as I usually would, but the real problem was the sensation of “having done something to my leg”. Every bit of sensory information coming from that part of my body now goes through the lens of history, memory, and emotion. Does it feel weird? Does it feel different? Is there a problem there? I have to try and separate out my historic feelings from the present experience – not rejecting them, but recognising them for what they are.

Pain is a great source of information, if only you know how to process it.

The great choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that:

“The dancer learns early to take pain for granted and that there is great freedom in choosing how to respond to its appearance. The thing NOT to do is deny pain. It must be acknowledged. Sometimes the right way of moving forward will be to push through pain. Your choices determine who you will be, who the world will see[.]”

Ultima Vez / Wim Vandekeybus + Mauro Pawlowski: “What’s the Prediction?” (ImPulsTanz Vienna 2010)
Read more

Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

Read more

Planificación personal con sistemas de creación de valores: una introducción

This is a Spanish language edition of my “value-creating systems” blog from December 2020. Find the original post here.

De vez en cuando, comparto herramientas sencillas que pueden ayudar a las personas a pensar en el futuro al hacer sus planes personales.Hoy me quiero enfocar en las relaciones interpersonales y los valores.

Esta es una época extraña y difícil para muchas personas. Actualmente pasamos una gran parte de nuestra vida en línea: reuniones en Zoom y conferencias telefónicas, pruebas en línea y reuniones en entornos digitales nuevos, y a veces incómodos. 

Tratamos con flujos constantes de información de innumerables fuentes. Hay más estimulación, pero también más distractores que nos pueden hacer perder concentración, ser menos conscientes de nuestro entorno, y menos capaces de procesar las cosas cognitiva y emocionalmente. Todas las emociones, frustraciones y oportunidades de estos espacios se magnifican aún más por las presiones del COVID-19. Esto puede hacer que no cuidemos nuestras relaciones como deberíamos.

Entonces, ¿por qué no tomarse un momento para trazar un mapa enfocado en usted y sus relaciones, para ver qué diferencia están marcando en la actualidad? Ya que hacer esto podría guiarlo en las decisiones que tome. Lo mejor del caso es que para usar esta herramienta no se necesita nada más que lápiz y papel.

Read more

It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

Read more

Planning for 2021: Value-Creating Systems

Every year, around this time, I share a simple tool which might help people think ahead when making personal plans. In 2019 and 2018 I offered variants of the “Arrows of Time” diagram. The arrows provide a way to reflect on the things which may await us in the coming year, and those from the past which will still be with us on our journey into the future.

This year, I want to share a different tool. You still don’t need anything more than a pen and paper to use it.

This year, I want to think about relationships and values.

2020 has been a strange and difficult year for many of us, with more of our life than ever before spent online: in Zoom meetings and conference calls, online quizzes and get-togethers in new, sometimes awkward, digital settings. All of the emotions, frustrations, and opportunities of these spaces have been magnified by the pressures of COVID-19.

We increasingly expect, and are expected, to deal with constant streams of information from many sources. There’s more stimulation, but we might also be more distractible, less focussed, less aware of our environment, less able to process everything cognitively and emotionally. We might not be tending our relationships as well as we might.

So why not take a moment, map your relationships, and see what difference they’re currently making? It might guide you in the decisions you make as 2021 arrives.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to bring together the work of a few different thinkers and writers in a simple tool. I’ll tell you more about the sources I’m drawing on at the end of this piece.

But before then, if you’re willing to join me, it’s time to get started.

We’re going to draw a map. Let’s begin by putting you at the centre.

Read more

“2050 was last year”: Times of COVID-19

Together with the University of Oslo’s Dr. Steffen Krüger, I’ve written a short piece on the Norwegian education scenarios, set thirty years hence, which we published at the start of this year – plus how the COVID-19 pandemic both confirmed some of our insights and challenged our perceptions.

Seeking an imagined future that would threaten a data-driven, corporatised health and care system, we created a world with distinct similarities to Norway’s coronavirus experience in 2020. In the essay, we talk about our scenarios, the cabin fever of homeschooled lockdown days, and how to bring the stuff of dystopian sci-fi into the realm of plausible policy discussion.

You can read “2050 was last year”, at the Times of COVID-19 blog.