(What to do when you want to "surf the tsunamis of change....")
Wendy L. Schultz
Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies
(copyright © 1994)
For the next forty-five
minutes, I am going to talk about surfing. (And you thought I was
going to explain environmental scanning and scenario building...)
What qualities does
a good surfer have? What do we notice surfers doing to catch and
ride a wave? [suggestions solicited from participants]
Exactly! And we as individuals
can use those same qualities to prepare for, and adapt to, change.
So can our organizations, our businesses, and our agencies: we can
work to become, in Peter Senge's words, "learning communities" (The
Fifth Discipline, 1990) Let me review: a good surfer
- always LOOKING FOR
- good at POSITIONING
to catch waves
- PHYSICALLY FIT
- ! NO SCARED !
- has a good sense of
- looks for a GOOD SURFBOARD
-- and takes good care of it...
- FLEXIBILITY !
Prof. Jim Dator, Director
of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University
of Hawaii, often refers to -- and warns people of -- the "tsunamis
of change." These are emerging issues of change that will sweep over
us whether we like it or not. Dator tells us that turning our backs
and closing our eyes will only get us flattened against the reef:
we must learn to SURF. So let's explore the steps required to surf
the shockwaves of change successfully.
- observes (keeps
her eyes open, looks for signs of incoming waves);
(estimates when the next set will arrive, how big the waves will
and positions strategically (if the wave breaks HERE, I
should be THERE...);
a dynamic balance/adapts (keeps her knees bent,
her stance open and loose, her weight over her center of gravity);
- knows her own
resources and uses them appropriately (correctly
evaluates her own level of fitness, chooses the correct board
On Surfing: "Futures
and effectively with the future is critical -- but it is seldom
easy. Futurists, decision-makers, and planners have developed a
wide range of techniques to deal with the future more effectively.
These approaches blend rigor and logic with imagination. Imagination
is by necessity a foundation of futures research: there are no
What information we
do have about the future comes from our records of the past, our
observations of the present, and our imaginative ability to ask,
"what if"? At base, these are the three key components of futures
thinking. Looking at the past, we can identify cycles of events:
seasons, sunspot activities, El Nino oscillations, elections, coronations,
couturier's hemline lengths. We can study "wild card" events: watersheds
in history that have restructured political, economic, or social
systems. What analogous situations exist in the present, or might
occur in the next millenium?
data-gathering and processing systems allow us to compile observations
of our world with astonishing speed and precision. This greatly
enhances our ability to spot historical cycles, to identify and
monitor current conditions and trends of change, and to look for
trends in the making. As a species, we are immensely adaptive and
innovative -- and our innovations open myriad doors of opportunity
while at the same time closing doors on past habits and behaviors.
Keeping an eye on inventions and technological innovations, value
shifts, even fashions and fads allows us to spot emerging issues
in the present that might initiate changes for the future.
OBSERVE -- keep your
How do we monitor the
external environment for warnings of change? What comprises our
external environment? What are we observing? (This is easier to
imagine for a surfer in Waimea Bay, of course...) Generally, we
need to consider five components of change: 1) certainties; 2) cycles;
3) trends; 4) emerging issues; and 5) "wild cards." Let me define
each of those briefly, and then offer examples -- both in society
and in the surf (by the way, I am going to run very quickly out
of my meagre store of knowledge regarding surfing; humor me).
are items in the environment which "do not" change, or which change
on scales imperceptible to people, or which have a high resistance
to change (high inertia). Examples would be geologic features, climate,
human nature, and embedded bureaucracies -- hence, "the only certainties
are death and taxes." Basically, the more things you consider certain,
the less future-oriented you are: no futurist would ever say either
death or taxes were certain. Well, maybe taxes. The last few years
of climate research have demonstrated we can't even take global
temperatures for granted. To get back to our surfer, certainties
she faces are the rocky headlands on either side of Waimea Bay:
probabilities are high that those rocks will stay put -- and she'll
need to avoid them -- her entire day in the water.
CYCLES: Cycles are identifiable
patterns of activity which recur in regular time frames. Our earliest
understandings of the future emerged from the cycles of the season,
the tides, and the stars. But data now exist on a wide variety of
cycles: ice ages, sunspots, economic recessions, El Nino events,
hemlines. Cycles have unique signatures in terms of shape (wave
pattern), pace at which they complete (periodicity), and magnitude
of effects. Variance in these characteristics hallmark change occurring
in the cycle. If winter in the temperate zone is longer, that is
a variance in the seasonal cycle which might cause a variance in
the ice-age-and-interval cycle. Our surfer, of course, knows her
tidal cycles, and also the seasonal cycles that affect surf height.
TRENDS: Trends, defined
generally as "inclinations or tendencies," are in analytical usage
directions of change in one variable over time. For example, the
offshore wind at Waimea can 1) stay the same; 2) increase; 3) increase
and then level out or decrease; 4) decrease; or 5) decrease and
then level out or increase. Each of those trends would be driven
by some change in the environment, of course, but let's not worry
about prime causes just now. Systems analysts develop complicated
arrangements of algorithms which direct computers to manipulate
data such that their printers spit out charts portraying one or
another of these trend curves. For the sake of imagining alternative
futures, magic markers and graph paper and an inclination to explore
("so what happens if our client pool increases instead of decreases?")
work just as well. Bear in mind that when trends stabilize, we often
start thinking of them as conditions: At one point the spiralling
cost of housing in Hawaii was a frightening trend -- now that we
all take it for granted, it's a condition of our current
EMERGING ISSUES: If
conditions are aging and sedentary trends, then emerging issues
are newborn trends. Or maybe just Mom in the delivery room: an emerging
issue is a trend that you're the first to spot. As more and
more people become aware of, and concerned about, an emerging issue,
as its impacts ripple through more and more sectors of society and
the environment, it grows into a trend. Environmental scanning
is all about identifying emerging issues: locating a potential
change while it's still Macaulay Caulkin and hasn't had a chance
to grow up and become Arnold Schwarzenegger. Planning to affect
-- or adapt to -- a trend is a lot easier before it has acquired
a lot of mass and picked up momentum. From our surfer's point of
view, the presence of a shark or two at Waimea several days running
could be an emerging issue warning of a developing trend: a major
increase in shark population in North Shore waters.
issues is critical to surfing -- environmental scanning (looking
for emerging issues) and emerging issues analysis (considering what
might support their growth into full-blown trends) are our means
to spot tsunamis of change. Let me give two more examples of emerging
issues, interesting because they demonstrate that the speed at which
an issue emerges can vary. Rachel Carson and Lester Brown sounded
an academic alarm regarding the environment in the late fifties.
Environmentalism was a watchword on the pages of Ramparts
and Mother Jones in the sixties. But it did not reach
the pages of Time and Newsweek, and America's living
rooms, until the second anniversary of Earth Day in April 1989 --
and it did not become a widespread marketing ploy until the 90's.
In contrast, personal computer use -- or cable TV -- took only a
decade to move from a wild idea in someone's garage (Apple computers)
to market saturation. (Yup, ten years: what did your office look
like in 1979? What did it look like in 1989?)
Emerging issues analysis
assumes that change is rooted in the innovative and the extraordinary.
Extraordinary in the statistical sense: outliers produce change
-- geniuses, visionaries, and lunatics in science, engineering,
the arts, politics, philosophy, or religion. And outliers are the
first to spot change, to feel the shifts in the frequencies with
which society or the environment resonates. The precursors of change
may thus be searched out among fringe groups, in esoteric literature,
within marginalized populations. That stuff, those people, make
you nervous? Then you've probably spotted change on the hoof --
change does make most people nervous. It's stability -- and stagnation
-- that are restful. This process of reviewing a wide variety of
specialized or esoteric sources to sift out the spores of change
is called environmental scanning.
"WILD CARDS:" Wild card
events are system breaks -- sudden, disjunctive changes whose causes
are several interlinked variables which produce no obvious change
until a threshold of some kind is met. Huh? Let's try again: "wild
cards" are single watershed events in history, like the end of an
era, or a paradigm shift. The fall of the Berlin Wall is a perfect
example of a wild card event. After a wild card watershed, disequilibrium
reigns until the affected system reorganizes and establishes a new
equilibrium. The two Germanies are still in the throes of reorganizing
to establish equilibrium across the newly formed larger political
and economic system. Back at Waimea Bay, a wild card could be as
wild as a car running off the road, crashing through the guardrails,
accelerating over the cliff, and landing in the surf -- or as mild
as two kids popping up suddenly directly in our surfer's path.
EXTRAPOLATE -- where's
the wave headed? how will it break?
We have enhanced not
only our ability to observe and record the changing patterns of
the world around us, but also our ability to analyze those patterns.
Economists, market researchers, systems analysts, survey researchers,
historians, and futurists, among others, all have techniques to
extrapolate what possible outcomes might be for observed patterns
of change. Whether quantitatively or qualitatively derived, we refer
to these expressions of possible outcomes as scenarios. A scenario
may be as simply expressed as the top line on a graph of economic
growth, or as elaborately fleshed out as a science-fiction novel.
But at base, it is an attempt to suggest what a possible future
might be -- given certain assumptions.
Our surfer knows where
she wants to go, and has in her imagination a vision of an ideal
ride. Now she needs to knit together what she's observed about conditions
and estimate what the waves will do, and which set looks most likely
to give her the ride she wants. What different outcomes are possible
with different waves, different starting points, and different ending
points? What factors are certain -- the rocks, the reef -- and what
are changing, in cycles or trends? What surprises might emerge?
What are the possible scenarios for the next ride? Of course, she
doesn't do this consciously; but as planners, we must.
Scenarios of possible
futures are one category of answers to the question, "what if"?
Scenario-writing, as a discipline, has its own set of rules, chief
of which is internal consistency. Achieving this requires
that imagination be harnessed to logical rigor: the flight of fancy
launched by asking "what if?" must follow a plausible path. Scenarios
combine our fund of observations about the past and the present,
our hypotheses about the laws of nature and society, and our creative
imperative to expand our mental horizons. Schwartz suggests that
any scenario builder begin by deciding which of the driving forces
are predetermined, or certainties, and which are emerging issues,
or uncertainties (Schwartz, 1991). This in turn leads us to investigate
"why events might move in one direction or another, and the implications
of their movement" (Senge, 1994: 277).
In working with organizations
to devise sets of scenarios that depict a range of possible futures
for Hawaii, we usually begin with three different emerging issues
or trends. Which leads to the question, how do we get from those
three trends to the vivid stories about the future that we call
scenarios? The quick answer: we hold a workshop, with groups of
people, about ten people per group, and give each group three trends
to discuss. We ask them to brainstorm the potential long-term impacts
of each trend. We ask them to think about how the three trends might
interact -- and how their long-term impacts might interact.
Each group has a facilitator
who helps push the discussion along. Futures-focussed brainstorming
is a peculiar and rarely practiced activity. A unique role that
futures facilitators must often play is the agent provocateur.
Whatever else we can say about the future, futurists often
say, we must say that it will be different. Thus the
only useful statements about the future are those that appear to
be ridiculous (this might be called Dator's Law of Practical
Futuristics...). Futures-focussed brainstorming problematizes the
present -- which for most of us is the ordinary. But in order to
think creatively about all the futures possible, we must challenge
the mundane within our own minds. Edward de Bono, who coined the
term "lateral thinking," suggests that we must provoke ourselves
to push our brains out of established patterns of perceiving, thinking,
problem-solving, and imagining. Lateral thinking -- his term for
what many of us think of as creativity -- flows across established
patterns, transforming them and creating new patterns.
Exercises that de Bono
suggests to provoke lateral thinking are challenge, exaggeration,
distortion, reversal, and wishful thinking.
Challenge basically refers to recapturing that childlike
innocence about why things happen the way they do: why do we all
drive cars to work? why do women shave their underarms, but men
don't? Exaggeration takes some idea, quality, or trend and
inflates it ad absurdum: washing and waxing your car once a week
prevents rusting and maintains the finish -- why not a self-washing
car that cleans itself immediately as needed? Distortion
asks participants to transmute the familiar and render it unfamiliar:
housekeys truly become house keys -- musical signatures that define
your house's decor, unlock its computer functions, and combine with
your car keys, office keys, and RV keys to create your little signature
symphony. Reversal refers to restating an assumption, constraint,
or concept as its logical opposite: all dogs have fleas -- no dogs
have fleas (fleas become allergic to dogs? extinction of fleas as
a species?). Finally, wishful thinking also asks us
to recapture a childhood skill -- daydreaming -- by stating our
desires without letting the pragmatic adult mindset edit them into
nonexistence: all children on the planet receive three nutritious
meals a day.
After three hours or
so of this, the facilitators have bales of newsprint crammed with
ideas. Those ideas are transcribed, and the facilitators organize
them into narratives. I will not attempt to describe the writing
process, but will say that it helps in drafting scenarios of alternative
futures to havesome acquaintance with speculative fiction. Nonetheless,
all of scenario building, from picking the emerging trends used
as input, through brainstorming, to drafting the narrative, is a
learnable skill. And it's enormous fun.
AND STRATEGIC PLANNING
Another category of
answers exists for the question, "what if?" These answers come from
our hearts. What if anything were possible? What would we want
for the future? Creating an image of our preferred future is
visioning. When a vision is created with conscious understanding
of the possibilities with which it must contend, it can prove a
powerful tool for strategic planning and personal motivation.
In the previous section
I suggested that our Waimea surfer had an image in her head of an
ideal ride: her vision of the best that she can be as a surfer.
It may be her mission, at least on weekends, to be the best surfer
at Waimea. The vision and mission lie at the heart of strategic
planning; from them we derive goals and objectives. What do we want?
What steps can we take to achieve that? How do we measure the success
of those individual steps, and the successful achievement of the
vision as a whole? How do we take advantage of opportunities in
the outside environment, and avoid the problems? What are our greatest
strengths -- what resources can we use to achieve our vision?
activities help us identify OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS
relative to our vision
the best we can be/define why we do what we do
"mission statement design"
are our resources: what skills, experience do we have, what
funds & equipment, who are our allies?
activities help us define our goals and the importance of what
we do, and identify the STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES which
our organization brings to bear on achieving our goals.
These processes are
the heart and bones of strategic planning: articulate a vision,
identify a mission, and then evaluate your external and internal
environments with Strength, Weakness, Opportunity,
and Threat analyses (SWOT).
In the context of this
larger process, why is scenario building important? Scenario building
serves two purposes. First, for the adventurous souls who actually
engage in the process, it stretches mental muscles and creates innovative
paths for mental connections. It enhances the creativity with which
you assemble the data you have, and transforms your perspective
so that you look for, and perceive, new sources of information all
around you. Second, using scenarios in strategic planning -- whether
built or borrowed -- enables planners to audit their assumptions.
An "assumption audit"
asks you what you are taking for granted about either your organization
or the environment in which it functions. What if that environment
changes? What if your clients change? What if your employees change,
or everyday modes of business communication? Have your plans, your
goals and strategies, taken into account the potential for futures
very different from today? Have you asked yourself, "what will we
do if this happens?" for a wide range of alternative futures? Can
your strategies adapt or affect those changed circumstances?
Scenarios and Visions; Leadership
The following books
represent a wider pool of reference works on adapting to change,
team building, vision and leadership, and futures thinking/strategic
planning in organizations. Where the annotation is scanty, you may
assume I haven't finished reading the book myself (should have included
a couple on time management, I guess...). Particularly noteworthy
sections are highlighted in bold.
Kanter, Rosabeth Moss.
The Change Masters. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983. One
of the first books investigating how highly adaptive organizations
get that way.
Kouzes, James M. and
Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge: How to get extraordinary
things done in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,
1991. 362 pp.
Note particularly Part
Three, which includes chapters on envisioning the future, and enlisting
others in building the vision.
Nanus, Bert. The
Leader's Edge: The Seven Keys to Leadership in a Turbulent World.
Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. 224 pp.
The codification and
application of insights from his earlier work, Leaders; clear
and straightforward in style, brief, it summarizes the need for
future-oriented thinking and suggests seven "megaskills"
for leadership; Chapter Five, "Futures-Creative Leadership," and
Chapter Eight, "The Leader's Edge," are particularly helpful. The
book's appendix offers a quick workshop technique for environmental
scanning -- identifying emerging change issues critical to strategic
planning -- that is quite useful.
--- Leaders: The
Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
An interesting and fairly
quick read which basically summarizes the case studies gathered
as part of a project on leadership; it is organized as an elucidation
of four leadership strategies. See especially "Strategy I: Attention
Peters, Tom. Thriving
on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution. New York: Harper
& Row, 1987. 708 pp. See also Peters and Robert H. Waterman
Jr., In Search of Excellence; and Peters and Nancy Austin,
A Passion for Excellence.
Overall, a fun read,
because of his breezy writing style and the many interesting cases
he cites; written as a "how-to" manual. In Chapter Five, "Learning
to Love Change," he highlights the need for organizational
flexibility, adaptiveness, and the critical role vision plays.
(His newest book, another gem, is Liberation Management: Necessary
Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. New York: A.A.
Schwartz, Peter. The
Art of the Long View: The Path to Strategic Insight for Yourself
and Your Company. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
An excellent and brief
work on the utility of scenario building in organizational planning,
including some pointers on devising a scenario building process
within your own organization. Very interesting examples: Schwartz
was formerly in the long-range planning division of Shell Oil.
Senge, Peter M. The
Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.
New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Chapter Eleven, "Shared
Vision" is possibly the best statement yet written on the
usefulness of vision for organizations; the rest of the book
is equally good.
--- The Fifth Discipline
Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.
New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1994.
Really excellent, dense
sourcebook of references, facilitation techniques and activities,
and examples for monitoring change, scenario building, visioning,
team-building, and leadership.
Waterman, Robert H.,
Jr. The Renewal Factor. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. Widely
cited work pertinent to keeping up with and adapting to change in
Science Fiction as Futures Thinking
Generally, an acquaintance
with science fiction, either from movies, television, radio, books,
or comics, enhances anybody's ability to think differently about
the possible futures people face. Watch some Star Trek reruns,
or the new Babylon-5. Check a few science fiction movies
out of Blockbuster and consider what it would be like to be an ordinary
person in the future that movie portrays -- or to be planning for
your organization in the future that the movie portrays (e.g., Blade
Runner, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Brazil, Back
to the Future II, Fahrenheit 451, THX 1138, to
name a few). Artists are sensitive to emerging social and technological
issues, and portray the potential of change more vividly than social
scientists. Speculative fiction offers a quick way to enhance your
mental flexibility. For short forays into the future, the following
authors and short story collections offer very different, and very
memorable, quick reads.
Ballard, J.G. Vermilion
Sands. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1988.
A reprint of a classic; Ballard had a unique insight into the possibilities
that genetic engineering and biological innovations might support
long before genetic engineering became jargon. Interesting characters
moving through settings with a touch of the surreal. (This is a
reprint; these stories are at least three decades old, but still
Gibson, William. Burning
Chrome. New York: Ace Books, 1987. The stories that started
cyberpunk as a science fiction genre; the stories that gave us the
term, "cyberspace." Gibson's use of language is astonishing.
Varley, John. Blue
Champagne. New York: Ace Books, 1987. High technology and space
colonies with in-depth treatment of interesting social issues. One
of my all-time favorite authors, if only for the story, "Blue Champagne,"
which features a space station built primarily to house an immense
zero-g swimming pool, a quadraplegic heroine, and the idea of marketing
an absolutely genuine emotional media tape of falling in love.
Zelazny, Roger. The
Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories.
London: Faber and Faber, 1973. Classic stories of human life in
space, written before he started making megabucks on his fantasy-oriented
Amber series. Zelazny has a sure hand with characterizations
and human relationships -- and a great sense of humor.
draws heavily on material presented in Futures Fluency: explorations
in vision, leadership, and creativity, Wendy L. Schultz, 1993.]