Sidecasting in a flow

August 22, 2012

It’s time to bring this series of posts to an end, but it is far from an end for the subject itself.  I started it after people referred to The future backwards (FB) as a backcasting technique but the range expanded somewhat.  That said I have largely confined myself to the timeline aspects of the more generic Foresight arena.   In this last post, I want to pull things together a bit and show how FB sits into a strategy process.  I should emphasis that this is only an application of the technique.  It also has high utility in lessons learned programmes, understanding different perspectives, etc. etc.  The process and description below, although it is focused on foresight may in modified form have application in other domains.

Now I should also apologise for what is going to be a somewhat complicated digram.  It is much easier to explain on a slide build, or if its drawn on the board.  However, neither approach is available for a blog post so you are going to have to take a deep breath and follow it through step by step!  Don’t worry about the whole picture until the end, and be nice by the way;  it took 3.5 hours on a flight from Singapore to Melbourne to put it together and at the moment as its creator I am sensitive!

So here goes.   I will start with the whole picture then describe the process step by step and finish with some general comments.

I am assuming some familiarity with FB as a technique here and assuming that the process has been run with multiple groups, ideally organised to maximise group think in each of the groups.  This does confuse people who have been trained to try and mix groups up, but in my experience, such a mistake is in error during initial sense-making.   By maximising group think you increase the number of perspectives as you encourage the development of extremes, and that increases scanning.  As a side here, I have often argued it was a mistake to collapse all the agencies into one post 9-11 as it encouraged a single view, rather than multiple perspectives.  Obviously, this is a balancing act: with too much diversity you get excessive fragmentation, too little and you lose adaptive capacity.  However for this exercise as want as much diversity as possible, we are trying to scan the range of all that is plausible, and that is a lot.

In a FB workshop exercise all the groups, once they are complete and not before, are rotated around all the other groups and are asked three questions about all the turning points created:

  • What did you see in common?
  • What was very different?
  • What surprised you?

Using markers on the back of any turning point cluster (the front would bias the next group through) the facilitator takes notes.  Once the rounds are complete the results are clustered.   Now, this does not have to be a workshop, it can be the result of an analytic process  In any event we end up with four clusters from those three inputs. Namely:

  • From those in common historical clusters of turning points that are seen in common represent aspects of the past that will blind people in the future.  More accurately small signals will trigger that pattern.  One example from personal experience is the attitude of IBM lawyers to IP issues after they gave away the windows operating system to Bill Gates.  Thereafter, they were always trying to avoid a repetition of the past error, understood in common.
  • Again from in common future clusters on the heaven and hell line will be examples of events that would again quickly trigger a common pattern, even it was not supported by the evidence.  In the terms of an earlier set of posts they are high consensus, low coherence and thus form an entrapment danger.
  • Where the various groups see differences we have strong indicators of potential conflict; the different groups see the past or future states in different ways so it will be difficult to gain any consensus.  A variation of this is where there are strong, but differing common stories.  For example in the build-up to one of the Gulf Wars, the argument in Britain was that the situation was either the meaningless conflict that gave rise to the unnecessary WWI, or the appeasement of a dictator that resulted in WWII.  Depending on which of several conflicting stories we choose the choice for what we do appears obvious.
  • Conflict also arises from those things which surprise people, but this is also a way of doing weak signal detection.  Getting a catalog of past surprises is one way to stimulate people to watch more closely in the future but it is far from safe-to-fail.  One other source here is a technique I learned from Gary Klein namely running a pre-mortum.  That means assuming that things have gone wrong and working out how they did.

You should have the essence of this by now and a lot of FB exercises stop here.   Its goal is to create contextual filters through which you can trigger people to various states of alert, by reminding them of past failures or potential future failures so that they dig deeper, scan more.  Of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.  FB can be a key input into a Cynefin contextualisation exercise providing the core data for a four points construction, described in my History of Cynefin article.  The consolidated results of FB also nicely feed into the new consensus-coherence framework referenced above.  All of that in turn shifts into planning with different types of action depending on the domain.

And, this is all part of a wider need for monitoring, scanning, and distributing cognition.  I show this returning to SenseMaker® in the picture, and his is probably the first site you will have had of the new app, which is in part designed for widespread scanning.  That however is for another day when I can also give readers a chance to experiment with said app.  Not far away, so watch this space.

The opening picture by the way is of a set of Salmon nets in an estuary; to overuse the metaphor, you can only scan part of the stream and they may escape anyway.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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