Reflecting on Some Incomplete Scenario Thinking from 2011

In August 2011, Kristin Cobble, Rebecca Petzel, and I had a planning meeting for Groupaya, the consulting firm we would start several months later. As part of that, Rebecca led us through some initial scenario thinking, which consisted of brainstorming certainties (trends we thought were almost certainly going to happen by 2016) and uncertainties (trends we thought were possibilities).

Here were the initial lists we brainstormed:

CertaintiesUncertainties
  • Economy really crappy in 2015
  • Mobile dominance
  • Africa will be online
  • Design firms flooding into the business (good design the price of entry)
  • Communication and Advertising Firms coming into the business
  • There’s a backlash against “collaboration”?
  • There’s a backlash against “social”?
  • Earthquake in San Francisco
  • Skilled, cheaper consultants coming here from developing countries
  • Knowledge work in the US in the decline
  • Knowledge work undervalued in the US
  • Net Neutrality
  • Trust in Internet services? Things like Wikipedia, AirBnB, eBay rely on trust
  • Institutional clamp down or continued democratization
  • Middle East political situation
  • U.S. “Arab Spring” coming?
  • Backlash against rationalism; rise of fundamentalism
  • Large factory consulting firms hijacking our business

Our “Certainties” list wasn’t very good. The economy was not “crappy” by conventional metrics in 2015, although we were continuing to feel the impacts of widening inequality. And we didn’t really see communications firms come into the business.

Our “Uncertainties” list was far more interesting. We no longer have net neutrality, at least at the federal level. Trust in several social media (Facebook and Twitter in particular) is down, and deservedly so. And reading the bullet point, “Backlash against rationalism; rise of fundamentalism,” now makes me want to cry.

I review these notes every few years out of curiosity and sentimentality, and I pulled them up again last month as COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on our lives. A few things come up for me when I look at these:

  • It’s possible to have an interesting scenarios conversation without a lot of prep. We were clearly already connected to a lot of interesting people and perspectives, which was how stuff like “backlash against rationalism” made it onto our list. (Kristin contributed that one based on conversations she had had with her friend and former colleague at Global Business Network, Eamonn Kelly.)
  • Prep would have helped broaden our perspectives and address some blind spots.
  • Pandemic wasn’t on the list of uncertainties.

The biggest thing that comes up for me is that we never truly benefited from the power of scenario thinking, because we treated it as a one-off. Imagine if we had returned to this list once a year, even without any additional prep, and talked through the possibilities. What might have come up? How might this have changed our thinking? What might we have done differently as a result?

This is a regret I often have about my own past work, and it’s something I find with consulting work in general: We barely benefit from the work (which is often time- and resource-intensive), because we never revisit it. There are lots of reasons we never revisit it, but the most common one is that we’re going too fast. I’ve been able to correct this with my own work (although it took several years and lots of focus and failure), and I continue to try to help others do the same. It’s been really, really hard, which is sad, because it’s so beneficial.

Baselines and Narratives

I haven’t read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, but I have found the reviews and their virality fascinating. Here’s what the New York Times, National Review, and Rolling Stone had to say. The Amazon.com reviews are mediocre at best.

There is something lurid and compelling about reading a retrospective about a failed campaign. It’s like looking at a train wreck — it’s hard to tear your eyes away, even if you want to. Unlike a train wreck, however, it’s hard to assess how “bad” Clinton’s campaign actually was, and what I’m reading about the book doesn’t seem to help.

In my experience working with organizations and their leaders, including some very good ones, there is a baseline of dysfunction that would surprise most people. Internal effectiveness and good strategy matter (which is what keeps me employed), but they’re not the only factors that contribute to success. You have to be very careful about attribution bias, especially when dealing with complex, systemic challenges.

So far, most of the retrospectives and commentary I’ve read have reeked of attribution bias.

The one thing that stuck out for me in reading the reviews were the points about Clinton’s lack of a clear narrative. The National Review, for example, wrote:

In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”

Again, I see this all the time working with leaders. It’s hard to identify a clear and compelling narrative and to stay on message, but it’s important. In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute this challenge to the Curse of Knowledge. Effective leaders have lots of knowledge, but that knowledge can get in the way of telling a clear story.

Le’Veon Bell and the Power of the Pause

Today was a very good day for football, including a game that featured one of the most exciting and unusual running backs in football, Le’Veon Bell (who had 30 carries for 170 yards in today’s Steelersplayoff win over Kansas City).

What makes Bell so interesting to watch, especially for the non-football fan? His patience.

Football is a game measured in seconds. Even though the average game lasts over three hours, players are actually playing for only about 11-minutes. Time is of the essence in this brutal game, and so most running backs (typically the best athletes on the team) make their initial move immediately. You’ll occasionally see a hesitation move, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

Bell pauses practically every single time he carries the ball. It almost looks like he’s sauntering to start. He’s not; he’s a ridiculous athlete. But he lets the play develop before he makes his move, and he’s often thinking two or three steps ahead.

This is strategic action personified in the most extreme, violent conditions. One of the core muscles in my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets program is the Pausing muscle. Simply doing a collaboration workout in the middle of the work week exercises the Pausing muscle. Additionally, every workout kicks off with a minute of silent breathing.

Moving without pausing to think and see is one of the most common strategic deficiencies I see in other knowledge workers, including many leaders. I’d love to show clips of Bell play with everyone I work with.

Lots of commentators, coaches, and players have commented on his style, although you don’t have to be an experienced football fan to notice this. This Washington Post piece on Bell’s patience is excellent (and also touches on his love of chess). This video features clips and interviews with his peers about his patience:

I particularly loved this next video, where Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, Bell’s Hall of Fame predecessor and one of my favorite players, talks patience and strategy with Bell. Not only is it fun to watch to great players talk about their craft, but in the previous video, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly breaks down why Bell is so hard to stop. In this video, Bell talks specifically about the cat-and-mouse game he often plays with Kuechly.

Photo by Brook Ward. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Disrupting Organizational Consulting

My secret goal with Changemaker Bootcamp is to disrupt management and organizational development (OD) consulting.

My rough and totally unscientific estimate is that the budgets for 90 percent of all management and organizational development consulting projects would be better spent on capacity development for staff.

Good consultants already orient their work toward developing this capacity, but it comes at a premium cost. When compared to other consultants who are charging similar or higher costs but are providing far less value, these costs are more than justified. However, I think there’s a huge market opportunity for something that provides greater, broader value at a fraction of the cost.

Physical fitness offers an apt analogy. If you want premium service, you can hire a personal trainer. At the opposite end of the market, you can buy a book or search the web for tips on how to stay fit. There are many services in-between as well: DVDs, bootcamps, gym memberships, and so forth.

Fitness Market

With organizational work, there are two extremes with very little in the middle, and it’s skewed heavily (and needlessly) toward the high-end.

Organizational Effectiveness Market: What Is

There’s consulting on the high-end, and there are books and articles on the low-end. Most existing training programs fall on the low-end of the spectrum as well, because they are oriented primarily around delivering information rather than on shifting behaviors.

There’s no reason why the market for organizational effectiveness should not look more like the market for physical fitness.

OE Market: What Should Be

I think organizations in general — and, by extension, society as a whole — would be much better off if it did. I think services like Changemaker Bootcamp have the potential to shift the market in this way.

An Example: Strategic Planning

Consider strategic planning. Organizations bring in consultants to help guide the process or to provide content expertise. The vast majority of strategic planning processes focus on helping the leadership team develop the “right” strategy.

Some organizations really benefit from these processes, because they understand what strategy is, and, more importantly, they understand how to act strategically. I’ve worked with several organizations like this, where my primary role was to create the space for them to have the strategic conversation. Once they had that space, they were able to align quickly and execute effectively.

The vast majority of organizations — and people, it seems — don’t fall into this category. In these cases, hiring a consultant is a waste of money. These organizations don’t have the capacity to evaluate the end result, and they’re not likely to act on it regardless.

Unfortunately, these organizations often hire consultants anyway, and the results are predictably ugly — “strategies” consisting of long lists of goals that are too general and abstract to mean anything. Not that it matters, since no one in these organizations generally knows what those goals are anyway.

The worst part about all this is that developing a good strategy is relatively easy. Acting strategically is what’s truly hard.

Acting strategically takes practice. Good consultants can help organizations practice in the same way that personal trainers help their clients. However, most consultants do not take this approach. Even if they did, there ought to be more and better ways to support practice than consulting.

Changemaker Bootcamp’s approach is to offer a set of exercises for practicing asking generative questions. These exercises don’t require any specialized skill to do, but they can help develop specialized skills if repeated often enough with constructive feedback from others.

My hypothesis is that most organizations would benefit far more from having their staff go through exercises like these than they would from hiring expensive consultants lead them through traditional planning processes.

Help Wikimedia Win the Management 2.0 Contest!

One of my past projects is a finalist for the Harvard Business Review / McKinsey Management 2.0 Challenge. I am recruiting Wikimedians and everybody who cares about open collaboration in general and the Wikimedia movement in particular to help us win.

From 2009-2010, I had the pleasure of designing and leading the Wikimedia strategic planning process. Not only was it the first strategic planning process of its kind for Wikimedia, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It was a completely open, movement-wide process, where anyone in the world could help co-create a five year plan for the movement as a whole. It was risky, it was scary, it was stressful, and it was exhilarating.

And it worked. Here’s what happened:

  • More than 1,000 people from all over the world contributed to the project
  • These volunteers created over 1,500 pages of high-quality, new content in over 50 languages
  • The year-long process resulted in five clear movement-wide priorities that has resulted in a movement-wide shift over the past year

If you’re a Wikimedian, you’ve seen and felt the renewed focus. If you’ve followed Wikimedia, you’ve read about initiatives that have emerged from the plan: closing the gender gap among contributors, a shifting emphasis on the Global South, and a slew of innovative features focused on strengthening community health. All of this came out of the planning process.

Why did it work?

It worked because we had an organization (the Wikimedia Foundation) that was committed to the cause and the process, even though it was an enormous risk for them. It worked because we had a great team. But the main reason it worked is that Wikimedia consists of an amazing, engaged, passionate community. We created a space, we invited people to come, and passionate, devoted, really smart people came and took care of the rest.

I’ve been wanting to tell the story of the process for a long time, but the usual thing happened: I got busy with cool new projects. Along the way, friends and colleagues have convinced me to get bits and pieces of the story out. Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute has been a huge evangelist of the work, constantly putting me in front of philanthropic audiences to tell the story. The Leadership Learning Community (on whose board I serve) asked me to do a webinar on the topic last March, which garnered a great response.

Chris Grams has probably been our biggest advocate, and he’s the reason I’m writing this blog post today. Chris heard about our work through a mutual colleague, and he asked me to lead a webinar on the project for opensource.com. Something about our story stuck with him, and he kept finding ways to talk about us.

Several months ago, Chris told Philippe Beaudette (the facilitator of the project) and me about the Management 2.0 Challenge. As usual, I was too busy to contribute, but Chris pushed us. He wrote the initial story, and he kept kicking our butts until we fleshed it out. And so we did.

Today, they announced the top-20 finalists, and we’re one of them. The other 19 stories are really great, and it’s an honor to be nominated. But you know what, our story is the best of the bunch. We’re talking about Wikimedia, the greatest, free, volunteer-created repository of human knowledge that exists on the planet. We ought to win.

You can help us do that. The final judgement will be based on the feedback the story get, and how the story evolves as a result. So for starters, we need feedback. Please read the story. Rate it, comment on it, and ask as many people as possible to do the same.

Thanks for helping!

Photo by Ralf Roletschek. Cropped by Deniz Gultekin. Licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.