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Visioning Processes:
A Futurists Strategic Perspective


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Thinking the Unthinkable

The processes I began to work with evolved out of the end of World War II, when Congress asked scientists at The Rand Corporation in California to help sort through the myriad issues surrounding nuclear warfare. They developed a process to force decision makers, who were in denial, into "thinking the unthinkable" -- what would really happen if nuclear war became a reality? This thinking ultimately led to the understanding that nuclear war and "mutually assured destruction" was insane...it meant nuclear annihilation, and there could be no winners in a nuclear war. I'd say it was an important lesson to learn.

Concurrent to the development of the Rand Corporation process in the late forties and early fifties, the concept of general systems theory was also

emerging. In this work, scientists began to view the world differently-- not
just using the tools of analysis, but also of synthesis, which put the pieces of a system together in order to understand the whole. This created a new way of looking at the world using a discipline called integration, which puts pieces together to understand how their fit makes the "whole" work. Ultimately, this discipline evolved into systems thinking, systems science, and systems engineering

Systems Theory

At the same time as the development of these theories, there was an increasing awareness that general systems theory applied to all natural systems; physical, biological, ecological, economic, even social, financial and organizational.

Visioning processes are excellent ways for senior leaders to learn the peculiarities of the system they're managing. It's a good way to understand the underlying concepts of systems, too.

We know that all formal social systems, are essentially living; without people, they are nothing but concrete, paper, intellectual property and digital information. As living systems, they're in a constant process of interaction with their environment and their many stakeholders. At first glance, some
very large organizations may seem like systems of forbidding complexity. So, to understand a system, it's crucial to understand its elements and their interactions.

What this means for a company is that each element of the organization must rely upon and interact with the rest of the organization in order for the organization to work. Problems are best solved, not necessarily by breaking them up into "functional" bites, but by getting into the next larger system and solving them through integrative mechanisms. Visions of the future need to look at the system as it is currently configured, and, then, what it will look like in many different futures.

Let's look at one of the visioning processes.

This process begins by asking individuals to think about the system they want to work on. It can be at an industry or company level, a division level -- even a department level. It can also be at a world level. Once the system is determined, the top three assumptions about that system are written down. When I decided to use this process for the Automotive Industries project, I told the process leaders that I had three assumptions about the automobile industry that I felt were generally accepted in Detroit. They were:

1. There will always be cars
2. The laws of physics will not change, and
3. There will always be a General Motors.

I think they say a lot about our biases. . . at least about mine. What I didn't quite understand in the beginning was just how much this process tested my assumptions by making me come up with plausible scenarios that negate each one. And, that is an integral part of one of the key techniques for visioning. . .testing assumptions.

As we identify and examine the assumptions about the current system it is gradually defined in its entirety. This includes the external environment, or the forces from the outside on the system; the internal environment; and what is called the stakeholder environment, which includes an understanding of all stakeholders of the system. It's essential that the definition captures
the identity of the system as it currently is, and, then, how it could be in the future.

Critical Analysis of Corporate Infrastructure

The internal environment of an organization is very important to define since it is the heart of the system. Every CEO should understand the forces at work inside their system, if they are going to be able to think through these issues in multiple future timeframes. This includes an understanding of the people of the organization and how well they work together, as a team, to accomplish the work of the organization. What business is the organization in? Will it even exist in the future? Will it be obsolete? Is it profitable? Is
it competitive? Is the organization structured effectively and efficiently to accomplish work or is the structure a barrier? What are the functions of the

organization? How well do they work together? What is the organization's overall process capability? Is it measurable? What about process integration, that is, how does the process of one function interface with the process of another?

A crucial element of the internal environment is the culture of the organization. How would it be characterized? Is it a positive force for change in the organization or a barrier to change? Are there formal, written statements of beliefs and values? What does the company stand for?

How are decisions made? What is the resource allocation process? How does the organization invest in its leadership for future generations? What is the infrastructure that supports the entire organization? What are the organization's unique core competencies that separate it from others? Who is the customer? Who will be your customer, tomorrow? Do you know the answers to these questions, today? How will all of these questions be answered in the future?

What will the world look like in the future? And, how will your company fit in that future? What will make your company and you successful in that future? Answering these questions is at the heart of visioning.

Breaking out of "The Box"

While visioning processes are being developed, it's important to understand how comprehensive one could be. It frequently is helpful to go far into the future, like the Asimov scenario, in 2085, to describe a vision, and then come back from the future to a year ten or twenty years hence. This enables the individuals to break out of their thought patterns, think "out of the box" and accept non-traditional ideas. It is also important to think of the historical timeline and to write a future history as the scenario unfolds. What will the world be like in the future?

In the Asimov scenario you will see how I tested my three assumptions about the automobile business listed above.

This will show you what a 360-degree look at the future is like, and how extensive the work can be because all of these assumptions are not true in "Crisis on Asimov."

Remember, this is a "gedanken" experiment, in the Einstein "thought" experiment sense - not a forcast or a prediction, but a way to learn and think about the future so you can do something to "shape" it the way you want it to be. Shaping is the way the Pentagon describes the process of influencing events to create the future you want.

Continue on to Crisis on Asimov

 

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