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(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]




  • good at POSITIONING to catch waves


  • ! NO SCARED !

  • has a good sense of TIMING

  • looks for a GOOD SURFBOARD -- and takes good care of it...


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

  • observes (keeps her eyes open, looks for signs of incoming waves);

  • extrapolates (estimates when the next set will arrive, how big the waves will be);

  • anticipates and positions strategically (if the wave breaks HERE, I should be THERE...);

  • flexes/keeps 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 for conditions).

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.

On Surfing: "Futures Thinking"

Dealing imaginatively 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 future facts.

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?

Today's sophisticated 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 eyes open!!

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).

CERTAINTIES: Certainties 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 environment.

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.

Understanding emerging 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.


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?

* monitor/observe "environmental scanning"
* extrapolate/anticipate "scenario building"
these activities help us identify OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS relative to our vision
* imagine the best we can be/define why we do what we do "visioning"
"mission statement design"
* what are our resources: what skills, experience do we have, what funds & equipment, who are our allies? "inventory resources"
"stakeholder analysis"
these 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?

Surf's up.



Scanning, Building 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. 244 pp.

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 Through Vision."

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. Knopf, 1992.)

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 organizations

Scenario Practice: 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 very original.)

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.


[This presentation/paper draws heavily on material presented in Futures Fluency: explorations in vision, leadership, and creativity, Wendy L. Schultz, 1993.]

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15 January 2003. Email IF.
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