I have written many times before about my serendipitous journey into the topic of complexity. One of the important insights for me is that we cannot really predict much of the future under conditions of uncertainty. While there are many things for which we know what the consequences are, we have to acknowledge that there are many situations where we simply don’t know how things will turn out.
As I became more sensitive of the consequence of the insight about unpredictability I realized how much of my work hinged on assisting customers to somehow plot and engineer a specific future path. I moderate at least one strategy session for some or other developmentally minded organization every month, sometimes many times more. All these organizations want to set their portfolio of interventions into motion, and want to make sure their plans are foolproof and environment proof – meaning that failure can be avoided somehow.
Recently I started following Dave Snowden’s advice, assisting customers to have much deeper conversations about what is going on NOW, and what is possible NOW. We’ve been using the 3 Criteria for Quick Wins for a while (see note below), but now I emphasize living in the NOW. At first I felt a bit insecure to insist that we stop trying to focus on the ideal future, but now my confidence has grown. The amazing thing is that many of my customers are responding positively to this focus on what is possible now. Maybe it is more intuitive to work from the current. Maybe South Africa has become so complex that we can actually not afford to spend much time in the future.
I must add, we do still look at the future. I am not promoting a junkie style of optimizing the current without a view of the future. There are some things that we know about the future. For instance, if a University decides to increase investment in post graduate research, they know they will increase revenue, increase research outputs, without necessarily increasing fixed overheads. But we don’t set a high goal, set milestones and lunge into action. We start by saying “how does post graduate research work now?”. We explore the options, the possibilities and the obstacles. We also look at what we’ve tried in the past and whether the context has changed so that we can try a small experiment again. Then we develop a portfolio of small low risk interventions that can be executed simultaneously.
I have been following this approach for just a few months and I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised by the outcomes. Of course it felt weird in the start to leave customers with a portfolio of experiments instead of a clearly developed log-frame like project plan full of milestones, champions, indicators and deliverables. But I can see how my customers’ organizations have become a more healthy, balanced and perhaps even more naturally innovative.
The future ain’t what it seems because we have so many things we can do in the present. It takes real leadership to work with what we have and it takes real courage to break with the typical management-style of detailed project plans, log frames, project charts and the like.
Note about quick wins.
As Mesopartner, we define a quick win activity as one where:
1) The resources are within our control. This includes funding, but also key resources, key people and willing champions
2) The results are easy to communicate. Preferably the results are visual so that the benefits of change are disseminated easily to others.
3) We can take the first steps of implementation very soon, within days or weeks.