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Goals & pitfalls

Goals & pitfalls

This section offers some general guidelines to the business of thinking new, broad or strategic thoughts. Three things need to be held in mind when doing this:

This last has a plethora of sub-meanings. For example:

Other papers in this chapter show that there is a natural hierarchy in the nature of 'big thoughts'. This runs from architectural, general thoughts to concrete options, and from these through project plans to progress checking and the like. The equivalent business processes are different and involved different kinds of people. Distinctive kinds of evidence and interaction work at each of these stages. However, we discuss this elsewhere.

The process.

The assumption is that we are at the beginning of this process. We want to 'know how to know': we are engaging in a process of self-education, at the end of which we will be able to navigate better because we have built ourselves a better map. The other issues - of which harbours to visit, which cargoes to carry - are subsidiary to this. In reality, of course, we do not start with a blank mind (one hopes!) and all of these steps are necessarily concurrent. Further, one is usually working with many other people, each of whom have distinct perspectives and each of whose operating units also may have a characteristic set of benchmarks that it applies to the world. It is not enough to know: one must know jointly, and be convinced. The planners role in all of this is catalytic, not didactic. Academics often make poor policy planners for this reason: over-defined issues, inadequate process, innate prickliness about the assertions of others,.

How, then is one to start to make maps with one's colleagues? The best place to begin is usually with an existing problem, and to worry this into its constituent parts. Then turn attention to these parts and find out what makes their pins and wheels turn. One can, for example, start from a profit equation, look at the elements of this and ask: what makes "volume of sales": market size, market share. So what makes . Whatever tropes are used, the aim is a dissection, laying bare the system that is at work. What is it that matters and what does not? Often, one finds that our assumptions collapse under close scrutiny. Portmanteau phrases 'customer value', for example, turn out to be uselessly vague, or in direct but unexamined opposition to other factors - let us say, to 'lowest cost, shortest time supply'. We find that there are things which we need to reconcile.

The best that we can hope for from such analysis is a model that makes sense to us. This should withstand critical examination, alternative perspectives, people who like to pull key phrases apart and examine their content, facts gathered unselectively from the evidence and so forth. The proof of this resilience comes from exposure to panels and others, or merely debate at informal gatherings. Many iterations are needed.

Some tests:

Apply the three questions with which we began. What is this for? Who is it for? What would a 'win' look like?

Look for buzzwords ("excellence", "shareholder value") and make sure that they mean to others what you think that they mean to others. Indeed, ensure that they mean anything to others. People are often embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what - for example, 'empowerment' - means in any but the most general terms. New industries spawn jargon, usually because they have yet to clarify what matters. "Our B2C needs a clicktrail-responsive sticky site" means, simply, that once customers have arrived, we should keep them. So say so.

Try adding the negative in front of verbs in sentences in whatever statement you have written. If to say that "we shall not empower our staff to pursue excellence on every front" makes no sense, then there is little point in making the assertion. It tells nobody anything about options.

Cut the text until it bleeds. Find what really matters. Define on one sheet of paper the three things that you need to get across to your audience. Why are these the important things? Are they right, distinct, rationally related to each other? Eschew moody viewgraphs and perky little cartoons. You think that they carry meaning, but all they do in practice is plaster over conceptual cracks.

So much, so elementary. So cut to the chase: how do I get some action out of this?

Taking action.

Recall the analogy with the ship and the map. In understanding your environment, you have built yourself a map, or - perhaps a better analogy - a working model of that environment. Of course, knowing how it works will not tell you what it will do, but it will define the things to watch. It will tell you what matters. You can define ranges for these, and it is easy to build a spreadsheet which will translate these ranges into uncertainties in the bottom line. That is useful.

Usually, models have a number of divergent behaviours. Figure 1 shows a number of cases evolving, left to right. The fitness of an outcome is shown vertically. The pink cases look successful to start with, and then other factors kick in which leads to a boost for the violet versions. A short-sighted company, following the dot-com track of pink fitness might miss out in the longer term trends, and end up isolated on a low-fitness local optimum. The inset shows such a pair of trails from above.

Figure 1: Evolving systems become more or less fit.

Scenario planning attempts to capture this tendency of systems to bunch up in response to key variables and - in particular - to key systems of feedback. For example: demand grows ahead of capacity, price rises, demand is curtailed, production capacity rises slightly, the system settles in equilibrium. This is a feedback loop in action. Our world is bound together by them. They come in two flavours: the harmonising, centre-seeking negative feedback loop, and the explosive, centre-fleeing positive loop. These are often characterised as basins and marbles. Place a marble in a basin and it settles somewhere in the bottom; disturb it and it does likewise. Turn the basin over and poise the marble on the top of it. A jar will send it running down, across the table and who knows where? Thus, very often, the difference between dot-com forecasting and real world foresight. Except in very poorly coupled systems, positive feedback almost always meets a negative loop before it has run very far.

These loops stabilise models. Key uncertainties destabilise them. Scenarios give a sense of what the entire system would feel like if this - or alternatively, that - outcome developed. They are intellectually quite rigorous to develop if they are done well, as we hope that readers find of the ones on this web site!

Scenarios tell you what the worldview which you have developed may do to you. Typically, they will also show you things that you have undervalued, overlooked or been hypnotised by to the exclusion of reality. They give you a sense of the resilience that you must build into your system, if you can, or the signs to watch out for if you cannot.

What scenarios are not is an exhaustive description of the future, firm projections or a recipe for immediate action. As other sections in this Chapter suggest, you need to integrate this form of enquiry with others, and as the section on knowledge management suggests in Chapter One, you will also need to convince the staff in the organisation of the validity and relevance of what emerges from this. The map tells you where the port are, but not which ones to visit. When you get there, your junior traders will do far better if they know where you are going next, and what you want to take there.

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