A Futures-Based Approach to Alignment and Collaboration
If you’ve had a career in business doing anything from leading to managing to executing, you’ve known pain. It is tediously common that while we pursue some collaborative decision at work, we will encounter misunderstanding or confusion. We often find ourselves and our ideas marginalized. We often find the outcomes of our choices don’t match our visions. We often find the mediocrity of our design outcomes are a painful antidote to our aspirations. This reality means we often find ourselves discouraged and disconnected from much of what we execute within our roles.
Perhaps the greatest contributing factor in this aggregate mediocrity is also the most painful. When we plan to generate some given outcome, we are rarely aware of the visions held by other stakeholders. Motives often appear shadowy. Our confidence is challenged to either stridency or submission as we lack a handle on the visions of the future that animate the behavior of our peers.
In 20 years of consulting and communications work, I’ve seen this dynamic play out over and over. As stakeholders in an important decision, we will think we’ve achieved some kind of accord. After all, we have a plan. What we don’t realize is that we hold different visions of the future. Our plans only serve to obscure our misalignment by offering a false sense of clarity. Inevitably, as stakeholders whose visions aren’t being served by the plan, we begin – often unconsciously – to extract our pound of vision-flesh by making increasingly punctilious demands of the design. As the demands mount, the initiative is bogged down. While we stakeholders may now have our egos sated, the objective outcomes have suffered.
I call this the Battle for the Futures. Without a means by which we can create alignment in vision, we are consigned to fighting it out through the minutiae of execution. The burden of this inefficiency not only makes for mediocre outcomes, it saps our ability to contribute creatively to the success of the organization. The total economic loss from this phenomenon, if measured, could be shockingly large.
What if there were a simple activity that could mitigate the pain of this experience? What if business outcomes could be more inspired? What if it were easy to address this problem on a daily basis? It turns out we can respond positively to these questions.
I first stumbled upon a path to addressing this challenge around 2005 when I met two futurists, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan. Stuart and Jake helped me see that what happens in the future is not what is determined in a plan. The future is not determined at all. The future is unpredictable because it doesn’t exist. This means the future is a possibility space. The future is the futures; it’s plural.
The thinking of futurology has produced tools that allow us to explore possibility space to inform more flexible and resilient plans. A little over a hundred years ago, before business knew how to plan, its chief focus was simply execution. In order to become more effective, business had to widen the scope of its considerations and learn how to create plans. Business is now in the same situation with respect to how we view the future. We need to expand the scope of our considerations and learn how to craft vision.
Many of the most visible tools of the futurist are experienced in the course of workshops involving many people. These tools are powerful, but they require coordination of schedule and space and attention. When all goes well, this work can mute the Battle for the Futures. It makes that battle visible and productive. It makes it not so much a battle as much as an opportunity to cultivate alignment.
But what about the interactions we have every day, the contents of which are entailed by our visions of the future? When we sit in meetings and discuss our design choices and next steps, we may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable, as though something is disconnected. How do we explore possibility when we’re tasked with the immediacy of the practice of business? How do we correct our course when we feel as though we’re not being understood? Is this meeting doing something useful? Are our plans aligned with what we thought was the vision? Is what we thought to be the vision what everyone else thought to be the vision? These questions swirl above many collaborative business interactions and remain inchoate – ephemeral – just out of reach of their potential utility.
With the help of my colleague, Mary Ann Baker, I’ve developed a simple tool that can be used quickly and easily anywhere within business collaborations. It doesn’t require scheduling of space and time and it can be done with as few as two people. We’ve started using it in our firm. It is changing the nature of our relationship to the future. It is allowing us to overcome the gravitational pull of mediocrity. It is allowing us to have courageous conversations. Perhaps most compelling to us, we’ve found it has allowed us to default to a posture of kindness even when we’re filled with doubt.
We call this tool the POP. It is easy to deploy and use. Before I share how it works, let me tell you how we came to understand and name it.
The Way a Human Does It
Douglas Hofstadter is less well-known than his thinking deserves. He’s a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University. His book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid won a Pulitzer in 1979. His ideas are considered seminal in the domain of artificial intelligence although they are largely ignored by practitioners and professors alike.
The reason for this strange state of affairs is that Hofstadter believes that real artificial intelligence would need to account for the uniqueness of human cognition. He goes on to point out that we don’t really have an effective working model for how human cognition even works. To the professor, all we have are lots of disparate approximations for cognitive tasks that don’t really describe the way a human does it. Of IBM’s Deep Blue – the machine that beat world chess champion, Gary Kasparov – Hofstadter suggested that if IBM was trying to build was an effective chess algorithm, they deserve congratulations, but if what they were doing was trying to model the way a human plays chess, they couldn’t have failed more utterly.
In Hofstadter’s philosophical perspective, what is particularly interesting and important about human cognition – and confounding to conventional approaches to artificial intelligence – is our ability to easily and fluidly employ metaphor. In the course of a simple conversation, people will shift their semantic context repeatedly while never losing the thread. We will use irony and sarcasm and simile. We will employ complex humor and subtext. These tasks appear almost impossibly difficult to accomplish through conventional computation.
You may be wondering what artificial intelligence and cognitive science has to do with how people deal with their visions of the future in business. To expose the connection, I want to share a fake quotation. It turns out Einstein didn’t say this even though everyone seems to think he did. He said something somewhat similar, but with a very different meaning. What matters is that the concept is compelling regardless of its provenance. The most common formulation is this:
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
Hofstadter sometimes refers to our facility with metaphor as loop-jumping. What he is implying is that we jump out of the context in which we’re acting to achieve a greater richness of perception. To Hofstadter, this is the magic of human cognition. If he’s right, it appears that it is also the magic of human creativity. When we solve seemingly intractable problems, it is because we can jump out of the loop, reframe and re-contextualize. He tells us that Deep Blue is only an algorithm. Kasparov can do something the machine cannot: he can get up and go take a shower and read a book and dance. Humans can jump out of the loop.
This is the origin of the POP. To use this tool is to pop out of a loop, realign, and pop back in. It’s simple, easy, and human.
See, Dissolve, Integrate
What we’re seeing is that POP can be a useful tool for aligning visions of the future. It does this by popping us out of our loop to craft alignment, and then popping us back in. To see how it works, I want to share one more insight.
My friend and brilliant thinker, Dave Gray, recently published a book called Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think. In the book, Dave discusses a concept he calls the Doom Loop. He defines it as a “vicious circle, sometimes called a downward spiral, where you’re stuck in a pattern of behavior that isn’t getting you the results you want, and yet, you continue anyway, which reinforces and amplifies the negative result.” We encounter the Doom Loop all the time in business and I believe it is an artifact of misalignment in visions of the future among stakeholders. As Dave says, “It’s like smoking. You might get the short-term reward from having a cigarette, but yet, you’re continuing to propagate the long-term doom-like pattern.”
I believe Dave has provided the perfect heuristic for when to use a POP. It also gives me a compelling way into describing how it works. When do we use a POP, and how do we use it?
To begin, we use the POP any time we’re feeling stuck. Another way to put it is that we use the POP any time we feel bad in the context of a collaboration. That’s easy. If you’re in a meeting or an informal collaboration with a colleague and you’re feeling bad, a POP can be useful. If you feel misunderstood. If you feel like your peers aren’t listening to you. If you feel the purpose of the interaction isn’t being respected. If you feel like your insights aren’t receiving the respect they deserve. These are the circumstances in which the POP is useful.
How to POP
How does it work? Here are the simple steps. You can start doing it right now in your organization:
1. Requesting a POP
Starting a POP is as simple as requesting it. If you’re feeling bad about a collaboration, you say, “can I have a POP?” To make a valid request for a POP, you must indicate a timespan. “Can I have a 10 minute POP?” At my firm, we allow a POP to last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. It can be in the middle of a meeting. It can be in an informal meeting in the kitchen or over coffee. Anytime anyone feels disconnected, they can request a POP.
2. Starting a POP
The next rule of the POP is that everyone involved must assent. If anyone involved refuses the POP, it either doesn’t happen or the dissenting party can leave the scene and let it go forward. The principle that animates this dynamic is that everyone participates in the POP of their own volition. Visions of the future are not coerced and alignment is only useful if it’s chosen and not compelled.
3. Shedding Your Agenda
If everyone agrees to have the POP, the context of the interaction is shifted. During a POP, participants voluntarily suspend their agendas. Contributing to a POP means you aren’t you while it’s happening. Instead, each participant in a POP is an open collaborator. Outside the POP, we all have our agendas and our visions of the future, but inside the POP, we abandon those positions and dedicate ourselves to the task of understanding all visions. The reason a POP has a timespan is that it wants to be both productive and protective of our ability to suspend our beliefs for the sake of understanding.
4. Framing a POP Design Challenge
The person requesting the POP is given the right of first refusal to determine the design challenge we’re popping. How do we all understand the purpose of this meeting? How can we most effectively staff this role? What business goals are we trying to meet? These are all useful formulations of a design challenge around which to focus the POP. If the person requesting the POP can’t quickly articulate the challenge, other participants can offer suggestions, but the requesting party has final approval. If a challenge can’t be generated quickly, the POP is abandoned until it can be articulated.
5. Collecting POP Challenge Responses
Once the POP has a clear design challenge, each participant is invited to offer their response. Any response that speaks to the challenge is acceptable, for example, “I think this meeting is for determining next steps,” or, “I think this meeting is for clarifying strategic assumptions.” Even, “what she said,” is an acceptable contribution.
6. Exploring Possibility Space
Next, each participant makes a good-faith attempt to describe each response in terms of four categories of vision of the future. The four categories are described as follows: How could this response to the design challenge succeed wildly? How could it collapse? How could it be maintained? How could it produce transformation and what might that look like? By considering each of these categories of vision, participants are further emancipated from their personal agendas and encouraged to take the perspective of their collaborators.
7. Closing a POP
By the end of a POP, it is often the case that we’ve found a deeper alignment on vision, or at least the participants have a much clearer picture of the array of visions held by stakeholders. On the other hand, if alignment has not been reached, participants can agree to repeat the exercise at a later time. In general, we’ve found that the POP is remarkably useful in aligning our vision before we end up with the Battle for the Futures.
With POP, we’ve found we have much greater confidence that our outcomes rise above the mediocre. By incorporating possibility into our interactions, we’ve found that we have less conflict around our executions. When we use this tool, we have more honest and courageous conversation. With it, we are able to more consistently generate real vision and not merely pretty plans with no substance. We’ve found that with POP, we’re able to stay grounded in our care for our colleagues and keep the collaborative environment intact. It allows us to set aside our agendas – however briefly – and rise above the defense of ego that typifies the process for making decisions.
Perhaps most importantly, we have come to see that tools like POP allow each of us to stay true to our purpose of doing things well. In a world filled with the mediocre, that’s not a small victory.
If you’d like to learn more about POP, or how your organization can align its visions of the future, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org